Needed: a just transition for jeepney drivers and operators

Jeepney drivers rally against the planned phaseout of public utility vehicles by the government in Manila at the start of a week-long transport strike. —CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

EDITOR’S NOTE: What was intended as a weeklong strike starting March 6 to protest the phaseout of traditional jeepneys was ended late the next day by strike leaders after a meeting with officials in Malacanang. 

Manibela chair Mar Valbuena said the protesters were banking on President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s directive to concerned agencies to fully review the jeepney modernization program alongside dialogue and consultation with drivers and operators. Valbuena said another protest action would be considered if the review process fails to meet earnest expectations.

This piece, written before the strike was ended, examines the reasons behind the resistance and offers solutions to protect both transport workers and the environment.   

For the first time since the Covid-19 pandemic, a tigil-pasada has been launched to call for the scrapping of the public utility vehicle (PUV) modernization program. 

The mere threat of the jeepney strike led the government to move the deadline for the consolidation of jeepneys into corporations or cooperatives to the end of December. How the latest phase of a long-running struggle over the fate of the iconic Filipino jeepney ends is being settled on the streets, not at a negotiating table.

Protesting jeepney drivers and operators oppose what they believe is a phaseout. The government argues that modernization is necessary to solve public transportation woes and mitigate climate change.

Modernization of public transport is rationalized as a step towards climate mitigation and formalization of the industry. The aim is to have formalized and quality public transport characterized by fleet renewal, higher-capacity vehicles, more operational efficiency and improved service. 

Another key objective is decreasing the greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) of public transport, lessening rapid motorization, and limiting the shift to car usage. The strategic vision is full decarbonization through the electrification of public transport. As part of the Philippine Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Action, railways are to be developed but road transport reform is needed as short- to medium-term mitigation.

Exact number unknown

The exact number of public utility jeepneys (PUJs) nationwide is unknown; estimates vary from 180,000 to 250,000. In Metro Manila, around 50,000—or more, given the prevalence of colorum units—are operating on more than 700 routes. Whatever the number, there is no doubt that the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of Filipinos is at stake in the phaseout of traditional jeepneys.

Studies show that in Metro Manila, around 80% of operators own just one PUJ. The average operator owns 1.3 vehicles and only 2% own more than five units. This fragmentation is a symptom of the informality of the sector. Jeepney operators are part of the self-employed poor and often are drivers themselves. Operators may employ drivers under the boundary system. 

Both jeepney operators and drivers are informal workers. Still, they are required in the modernization program to shoulder the burden of the transition. This is a key issue of the controversy. 

Of the P2 million or more price of the modern jeepney, the government will only provide a subsidy of P160,000. A modern jeep is required to have GPS, WiFi, EPS and cameras. The cost would be prohibitive for an operator who earns a boundary of P700 per day, or a driver whose income is P1,000 for more than eight hours of work per day. 

Moreover, the fleet requirement of 15 units per operator is steep. Then there are overhead expenses, such as formal organization as cooperative, fleet management, and salaried workers.

Related: Jeepney driver says: Let us run our own show


Transport workers air demand to the government in streamers on the side of jeepneys. —CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

The modernization program as conceived should cover all public transport but in practice has targeted jeepneys—an apparently easy scapegoat because of problems in the sector. 

PUJs are frequently blamed for road congestion. Yet these make 80% of all trips in Metro Manila but occupy only 17% of the road space. Due to cheap fares, PUJs carry 40% of commuter traffic, equivalent to 40 million person-trips per day. 

Despite the reputation of jeepneys and buses as smoke-belchers, they are more efficient in terms of carrying capacity and thus lead to a reduction in traffic, fuel cost, GHG emission and air pollution, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO) Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific.

Of the total GHG emissions for transport, jeepneys generated only 15% in 2015. 

Private vehicles outnumber PUVs by 25-1. PUJs comprise only 2% of all registered vehicles: 50,000 of 2.5 million vehicles in Metro Manila, and 300,000 of 12.75 million vehicles nationwide. 

It does not make sense to single out jeepneys among the different PUVs, and certainly not without regulating private-car ownership.

Pandemic as opportunity

A series of tigil-pasada has occurred over the years since PUV modernization was first proposed more than a decade ago. 

In June 2017, a three-year transition for all PUVs—not just PUJs—was provided for in the modernization program. Yet then President Rodrigo Duterte wanted all traditional jeepneys phased out by the end of 2017. A nationwide strike once more proved successful in pushing back this plan.

The pandemic presented the government with the opportunity to enforce the modernization program without opposition from jeepney drivers and operators. In one fell swoop, PUJs were banned from plying the roads along with other modes of public transport. That jeepneys had been singled out was eventually exposed when restrictions were relaxed and modes of public transport were allowed back except for PUJs.

The declaration of the strict lockdown, or enhanced community quarantine, in Metro Manila on March 16, 2020, put 120,000 PUVs out of commission, including some 50,000 PUJs, according to one estimate. 

After two and a half months, on June 1, 2020, the shift to the more relaxed general community quarantine allowed a limited number of PUVs—such as city buses, point-to-point buses, taxis, the Transport Network Vehicle Service, and shuttles—to operate at 50% capacity.

Finally, on June 22, 2020, PUJs complying with the PUV modernization rules were permitted to run. By July 3, 2020, 6,002 traditional PUJs were authorized to operate.  But by Aug. 4, 2020, with the imposition of a stricter modified enhanced community quarantine, only 968 PUJs had been allowed back. 

In sum, the conservative estimate is that P2 billion was lost as income for PUJ drivers at the height of the pandemic ban on traditional jeepneys.

Jobs and environment

In a sense, the modernization program is a case study of the jobs and environment conundrum. Still, it is not a choice between employment and the environment, but protecting both at the same time. The labor movement’s framework of just transition serves precisely to bridge these concerns into a unified position that advances both workers’ welfare and environmental protection. 

Combining traditional advocacies with new imperatives, the ILO argued in 2015 that a process of social dialogue and an outcome of decent work should animate the just transition to a low-carbon future. The jeepney modernization program must be reformed and informed by the principles of just transition towards the aim of a public transport system that is safe, efficient and convenient, and protects the environment and promotes decent work.

As the crucial first step, the government must stop imposing its deadlines and design for modernization that is skewed towards corporatization. Instead, it must engage in social dialogue with jeepney associations and consider the demands of drivers and operators. There must be active listening and good-faith negotiations with jeepney associations, as well as commuter advocates.

Among these key demands is lengthening the period for the consolidation of jeepneys into cooperatives. Aside from the overhead costs of fleet consolidation, there is a steep learning curve for jeepney associations to transform into a cooperative. Capacity-building and organizational development are necessary requisites.

The state must shoulder its fair share of the costs of modern jeeps. The original measly subsidy of P80,000 has been increased to P160,000. But jeepney groups insist on a subsidy of P500,000 at the very least, if not half of the total cost.

Social protection must be extended to those who cannot transition to modern jeepneys or who opt out of the sector. Drivers and operators begging for alms during the pandemic lockdowns should not happen again.

Small price to pay

All of these just-transition interventions are costly. But generous government subsidy and support is a small price to pay if modernization is genuinely aimed at mitigating climate change and traffic congestion, which benefits all Filipinos.

Finally, service contracting must be institutionalized as a mechanism to formalize the public transport sector and its workforce. As implemented, service contracting has morphed into financial assistance to drivers and free rides for the public. Turned on its head, service contracting unfairly competes with unenrolled units. 

Instead of temporary ayuda, service contracting should be the new normal in public transport. The local government or a national agency contracts the modern PUJs to service a route, and collects the fare from passengers who use automated payment cards. In this way, service contracting is sustainable.

Service contracts of jeepney cooperatives must be long-term—five years, for example—so that investments are incentivized. Such a scheme would be akin to how local governments regulate and run public markets as a public enterprise. 

Workers in a modernized jeepney sector are guaranteed wages and benefits without the pressure to compete for passengers, as happens under the boundary system. 

Service contracting is the future of mass public transport: Workers are in formal employment status, commuters enjoy comfort, and operators are guaranteed an income in return for a public service.

Benjamin B. Velasco is assistant professor at the School of Labor and Industrial Relations (Solair), University of the Philippines Diliman, and co-convenor of the Alternative Development Program, UP Center for Integrative and Development Studies (UP CIDS AltDev). —Ed.

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