The Philippine public land transportation industry was beset with problems during the Covid-19 pandemic. With restricted mobility and physical distancing measures enforced as early key strategies to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, it was inevitable that the livelihood opportunities of transport workers would be negatively affected as the number of trips and passengers dwindled.
The government’s policy response for the transport sector aimed at easing the effects of health-related pandemic mitigation efforts seem to have instead exacerbated the hardships of both transport workers and the commuting public. Accounts from transport workers, civil society groups, and the academe, supported by news reports as well as official government records, reveal the dominance of top-down policies formulated and implemented with little regard to on-the-ground realities that should have been readily apparent to government agencies handling and regulating the sector.
A sluggish return to normal operations from an initial total ban on public transportation, influenced by an insistence on implementing a pre-Covid modernization initiative in the form of the PUV Modernization Plan (PUVMP), sustained a prolonged mismatch in supply and demand for transport services. This meant longer periods of missed income opportunities for transport workers and extended inconvenience for the commuting masses.
Top-down decision-making processes were also manifested in specific policies, such as the excessive constraints against the operation of open-air vehicles and the requirement for plastic barriers for motorcycle pillion riding.
The government’s transport-related Covid policies were discriminatory by their nature and implementation. Restrictions largely pertained to and disproportionately affected those who make a living from and rely on public transport, while private vehicles remained relatively unrestricted. There was no real effort to provide reasonable and sufficient mobility for the commuting public compared to the relative convenience afforded owners of private vehicles.
The continued implementation of the PUVMP also seems to have contributed to an overall discriminatory treatment of lower- or non-priority modes of transport. Traditional public utility jeepneys (TPUJs), for instance, were subjected to the longest suspension of operations. They also had to contend with the PUVMP fleet modernization and franchise consolidation requirements under pain of being phased out.
Pedicab riders in Sitio San Roque in Quezon City were relentlessly apprehended, fined, and their sidecars confiscated despite offering open-air mobility within smaller urban communities at a time when conventional and motorized modes of transport were made unavailable. Ride hailing and delivery motorcycle riders were subjected to tighter scrutiny at checkpoints compared to larger vehicles.
These non-priority modes of transportation—pedicabs, motorcycles, TPUJs—reported having experienced comparatively harsher treatment from law enforcers, whether in plying their routes; in attempting to air their grievances through mass protests; or even in undertaking community initiatives to address their economic hardships, such as in community kitchens and pantries, etc.
The crackdown on these sectors in the transport industry, traditionally composed of workers from lower socioeconomic classes, may be explained through what has been described as the Duterte administration’s “securitizing” of the pandemic. Discriminatory and draconian measures through the creation of the “pasaway” (disobedient) archetype became the easily identifiable “enemy”—and not the coronavirus itself—during the pandemic.
Government response was also seen to cause further decent-work deficits among transport workers. The failure to immediately address the supply and demand mismatch, paired with unjustifiable rules and restrictions in the resumption of operations of public transportation, only burdened transport workers trying to make a living.
Longstanding issues, such as uncertain employment status, informality, and lack of access to social benefits were again highlighted as matters still insufficiently addressed in the world of work. Issuances by the Department of Labor and Employment on the conditions of transport workers were either absent or ineffectively implemented. Government cash and in-kind assistance during the pandemic was marked by erratic and spotty coverage and distribution, and proved ultimately insufficient to convince concerned populations to isolate at home instead of heading out to find work.
Human rights perspective
As recounted by transport workers themselves and backed by news reports and government records, government response to the condition of the public land transportation sector during the pandemic was an overall failure especially when evaluated from the perspective of human rights.
Government response is seen as failing in 5 out of 10 key indicators for monitoring human rights implications of Covid-19 in the United Nations’ socioeconomic response framework. Accounts also show failure in certain items of the UN’s checklist for a Human Rights Based Approach to socioeconomic country responses to Covid-19.
But despite the government’s failures, transport workers were not deterred from attempting to improve their dire situation. On the contrary, they were forced to amplify their collective calls and efforts for representation, participation, and genuine solutions to the problems they contend with.
Grassroots organizing, seeking allies, airing demands, engaging with authorities, and launching protests were only some of the modes of action that transport workers and their respective communities adopted. All these endeavors achieved varying degrees of success and revealed that, instead of becoming passive victims, transport workers exercised willingness, full intent, and agency to actively resolve their grievances.
The government may do well to consider these policy recommendations for the transportation sector:
1. Good-faith implementation of social dialogues with transport workers.
2. Application of the just transition framework to the jeepney modernization program.
3. Lengthening of the transition period for traditional jeepneys and increase in the subsidy for the purchase of modern jeepneys.
4. Institutionalization of the service contracting scheme as the new normal in public transport for both buses and jeepneys.
5. Full implementation of the rules mandating fixed salaries for bus drivers and conductors in place of the boundary system.
6. Recognition of the value of nonmotorized informal transport such as pedicabs, and implementation of just systems acknowledging the right to livelihood of pedicab drivers and operators.
7. Formation of a technical working group with representation from workers engaged in food delivery, courier, and ride-hailing applications.
8. Resolution of the employment status of workers in food delivery, courier services, and ride-hailing platforms.
This article is a summary of Mikhail Ambrose R. Aggabao, Erik Dane I. Belarmino and Benjamin B. Velasco’s 2022 “Pasadang Pandemic: The Impact of Covid-19 on Transport Workers,” a University of the Philippines’ Center for Integrative and Development Studies (UP CIDS discussion paper (https://cids.up.edu.ph/discussion_paper/pasadang-pandemic-the-impact-of-covid-19-on-transport-workers/).
The author is university researcher at the Center for Labor and Grassroots Initiatives, School of Labor and Industrial Relations (CLGI SOLAIR), UP Diliman. —Ed.