Two transport strikes have been called this year in protest against the government’s so-called public utility vehicle modernization program (PUVMP), which is aimed at replacing aging jeepneys with environment-friendly but much more expensive minibuses.
Following two days of a planned weeklong strike in March, leaders of transport groups Manibela and Piston were called to a meeting with Malacanang officials.
After the meeting, Manibela chair Mar Valbuena, sitting beside Piston president Mody Floranda, read a statement that his group did not want to obstruct a plan for more comfortable and safe public transportation, but that they hoped it would be done in a humane and reasonable manner, with no one left behind: “Sana lamang gawin ito sa pamamaraang walang mapag-iiwanan, makatao at makatwiran.” (See “Needed: a just transition for jeepney drivers and operators,” CoverStory.ph, March 9, 2023.)
Valbuena added that they would hold President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to his word that his administration was open to study and revise the implementation of the PUVMP to protect the livelihood of drivers and operators.
It was announced that Mr. Marcos had directed the Department of Transportation (DOTr) and the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) to hold consultations with jeepney operators, drivers and commuters.
But it soon appeared that the government had failed to respond to the sector’s concerns because four months later, Manibela called another strike starting on July 24, to coincide with the President’s State of the Nation Address (Sona).
“Not one of our complaints was addressed,” Valbuena, speaking in Filipino, told CoverStory.ph in an interview on Aug. 1. One concern was the consolidation of the jeepney franchises and another was the expensive “modernized” units that would replace the old jeepneys.
Manibela and Piston also saw the “loss” of certain traditional jeepney routes due to the LTFRB’s Local Public Transport Route Plan and alleged preferential treatment in awarding routes to corporations or local governments.
The University of the Philippines Transport Group (UPTG), with over 100 members, joined the strike. UPTG spokesperson Nolan Grulla said his group, which is not linked to Manibela or Piston, supported the strike “because we are fighting for the same thing.”
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The government launched the PUVMP in 2017 with DOTr’s issuance of Department Order (DO) No. 2017-011, or the Omnibus Guidelines on the Planning and Identification of Public Road Transportation Services and Franchise Issuance.
Under this program, old jeepneys will be replaced with new vehicles that meet the government’s standards on emissions, safety, and accessibility.
According to the DOTr and the LTFRB, the program aims to transform the public transport system into a “more dignified, humane [system] on par with global standards.”
Aside from standardizing the sizes and specifications of PUVs, the PUVMP specifies the use of brand-new and “environmentally friendly” vehicles powered by electric motors or engines that are Euro IV-compliant or better, to lessen carbon emissions according to the government’s emission standards.
The government requires modernized units to install a GPS navigation system, an automatic fare collection system, speed limiter, on-board camera, dashboard camera, and free access to the internet through Wi-Fi. Some PUVs may install a ramp to assist persons with disabilities and air-conditioning at their own expense.
The physical configuration of the “modern jeepney” would erase all the features of the traditional jeepneys, which were fashioned from surplus US Army jeeps left by the Americans after World War II and which became the chief means of public transportation from Aparri to Jolo. The “king of the road” became a unique and distinctive Filipino icon.
The “modernized” box-like versions are closer in appearance to buses and are larger than the traditional jeepneys; they seat up to 22-30 passengers, more than the usual 16-18. The models proposed in 2023 include higher ceilings and doors on both sides of the vehicle.
The biggest complaint against these versions is the cost, which ranges from P2.4 million to P2.8 million each, up from the government’s initial estimate of P1.4 million to P1.6 million. In comparison, a brand-new traditional jeepney that can carry 20 passengers made by pioneer manufacturer Sarao Motors Inc. is being sold this month (August) for P1.1 million.
Grulla, 59, who has been plying the route between SM North Edsa and the UP Diliman campus for 28 years, said most operators and drivers could not afford the new units.
After spending 14 hours on the road, he grosses around P2,300 on a typical day. He deducts P1,000 for fuel and P700 as “boundary” payment to the jeepney’s owner and operator, who happens to be his mother.
Under the decades-old boundary system, the driver spends for the fuel and pays the operator a fixed fee for driving the jeepney. Any amount earned beyond the boundary is for the driver to keep.
That leaves Grulla with only P500 for one grueling day, much less than the P1,200 he used to make before the Covid-19 pandemic.
According to Grulla, other jeepney drivers on his route pay a boundary of P800-P1,200, depending on the passenger capacity of their units.
His own daily earnings are all that his family lives on and cannot be relied upon for big expenditures, like his daughter’s recent hysterectomy. His wife requires daily maintenance medicine for diabetes, for which he sometimes seeks donations from his friends and the UP community.
Grulla said the pandemic, during which nearly all public transportation was suspended after a lockdown was imposed starting in March 2020, drastically affected the livelihood of drivers and operators.
He said that when the government allowed public transport operations to resume later in 2020, jeepney owners needed to cough up amounts of up to P80,000 for new batteries and tires, to bring their vehicles back in shape.
Despite the resumption of operations, UP jeepneys carried only a few passengers until early 2023 when the university fully reopened the campus.
The drivers did not make money for two years because of the pandemic and several have died due to illness or old age, Grulla said, adding that some had switched to other sources of livelihood.
To assist drivers and operators in purchasing modern jeepneys, the government prepared a loan package that includes a 5% down payment that carries a 6% interest rate and a seven-year amortization, and an equity subsidy of up to P360,000 per unit. These loans are available from the government-owned Land Bank of the Philippines and Development Bank of the Philippines.
Jeepney operators must surrender their old units for scrapping to avail themselves of the equity subsidy, according to DO No. 2018-016 from the DOTr. The department said state-accredited scrapping companies would buy the old jeepneys at P20,000 to P30,000 per unit.
Operators and drivers who plan to shift to another source of livelihood can avail themselves of an assistance program from the Department of Labor and Employment and Tesda, or the Technical Skills Development Authority, per LTFRB Technical Division chief Joel Bolano.
The government sees consolidation as the first step in the PUVMP. Operators must group themselves into a single legal entity, a cooperative or corporation, with at least 15 units. Only consolidated entities may take out loans to purchase the modern units.
Last May, Transportation Secretary Jaime Bautista said consolidation would be more beneficial overall: “There’s right dispatching, there’s right maintenance of the vehicles, there is right operations. The drivers are trained well.”
Bautista said drivers would earn at least the minimum daily wage instead of following the boundary system, and also receive social security benefits and health insurance. The minimum daily wage in Metro Manila is P610, the highest nationwide.
Since the implementation of the modernization program in 2017, all previously issued five-year franchises were automatically converted to one-year “provisional authority” or PA. This is what is used by traditional jeepney operators who have not yet formed a cooperative or corporation. Operators pay P260 to the LTFRB for a motion for PA extension per unit. The PAs, however, are valid only until Dec. 31, 2023, according to LTFRB Memorandum Circular (MC) 2023-017.
‘Hindi namin kaya’
Consolidation requires a huge capital that, Grulla pointed out, drivers simply cannot afford on their meager earnings: “Hindi namin kaya. Maliit lang ang kita namin.”
LTFRB’s MC No. 2019-06 requires operators to raise at least P20,000 per jeepney as proof of financial capability for “vehicle maintenance, repair, and operation,” or a total of P300,000 before a cooperative can be given a franchise to operate.
Many operators and drivers are worried about the possibility of their units being monopolized, both Grulla and Valbuena said in separate interviews.
Valbuena said a driver or operator could become a “slave” of the cooperative or cooperation to whom the franchise was given and who holds the papers. “Sunod-sunuran ka na lang dun sa namumuno. Yung kooperatiba at korporasyon kasi hawak na nila yung papel mo.” (See “Jeepney driver says: Let us run our own show,” CoverStory.ph, March 10, 2023.)
Earlier, LTFRB chief Teofilo Guadiz III said during a hearing at the House of Representatives that a jeepney operator who had “the financial capacity” may apply for a franchise as a sole corporation if he did not wish to become part of a cooperative.
The DOTr expects 80-90% of all jeepney drivers and operators to consolidate by the end of 2023. According to data earlier released by the LTFRB, 100,349 out of 158,281 units nationwide, or 63.4%, have consolidated themselves as of December 2022.
Last March the LTFRB said that 6,814 modern jeepneys were operating around the country. As of May about 1,400 were in the cities of Cebu, Mandaue and Lapu-Lapu, per LTFRB-Central Visayas.
The application for consolidation, which has been extended several times since 2017, is only open until Dec. 31.
Guadiz said in a Senate hearing that traditional jeepneys would not be phased out after the deadline. “We’re trying to help them consolidate, and we will continue to assist them, seeing to it that no one is left behind,” he said.
‘Pasensya na po’
Manibela’s planned three-day strike that began on Sona Day was cut short as certain parts of the country were hit by Typhoon “Egay.” The group decided not to give commuters the “double” burden of a strike and bad weather.
Valbuena said that several days before the strike, a member of Bautista’s staff tried to arrange a “dialogue” but said this would have to be quick as the transportation secretary had an engagement that same day.
Miffed, Valbuena demanded to know what could be accomplished during a rushed arrangement. He said an exact time should have been given if a real dialogue were to be accomplished.
He said that after the strike, he constantly sought updates regarding Manibela’s concerns from the LTFRB through a series of messages, but that the response was always an apology and nothing else: “Pasensya na po.”
He wondered if the constant apology was for the DOTr’s “belittling” of their group, and thereafter received no reply.
Manibela can be expected to continue organizing more transport strikes until its members see concrete action from the government, Valbuena told CoverStory.ph.
“Definitely, we have a lot of plans. We will continue making noise,” he declared.
Charmaine Estabas and Maryhl Dionamel Donila, third-year journalism students at the College of Mass Communication, University of the Philippines Diliman, are interns at CoverStory.ph.