Philippine transport groups yesterday launched a weeklong, nationwide strike to protest a government transport modernization program that drivers say could threaten the country’s jeepneys – an important facet of Philippine culture and a source of livelihood for thousands.
According to The Associated Press, drivers and supporters marked the beginning of the strike with a noisy rally in Quezon City, a suburb of Manila, after which they proceeded in a convoy to a government transport regulatory office to press their protest. At least 100,000 jeepney drivers and operators are expected to take part in the strike.
“We’re calling on the public to support the transport strike in any way possible,” Renato Reyes Jr. of Bagong Alyansang Makabayan, a left-wing political alliance Bayan, which was backing the strike, told the AP. “The inconvenience of the transport stoppage is temporary, but the loss of livelihood of drivers and operators would be long-term.”
The cause of the strike is the Public Utility Vehicle Modernization Program, launched by the Department of Transportation in 2017, which aims to replace old passenger jeepneys and buses with modern vehicles. Replacement vehicles are required to have electric engines or a Euro 4-compliant internal combustion engine, in addition to other safety features.
Opponents of the plan say that most jeepney drivers will not be able to afford to purchase new passenger jeepneys, even with the promised government subsidies. According to a report in The Guardian, a traditional diesel-powered jeepney costs between 150,000 to 250,000 Philippine pesos, while a modern jeepney that is Euro 4-compliant can cost as much as 10 times that.
The colorfully festooned jeepney is a totemic example of Filipino flamboyance and ingenuity. Originally adapted from military jeeps left by the U.S. Army after World War II, jeepneys have become a crucial part of the transport system in many Philippine cities, where mass public transport options are often limited or inefficient.
The centrality of the jeepney to the transport circuitry of Manila and other cities means that the strike, which could keep more than 40,000 passenger jeepneys and vans off the streets of Manila, is likely to create serious disruptions. Indeed, the local authorities in Manila and its various satellite suburbs have told schools to switch to distance learning classes, something that they are well familiar with following the extended COVID-19 lockdowns, for the duration of the strike. The local government of Quezon City, the most populous city in the Philippines, also called on businesses to work online where possible. Local governments have also made vehicles available to help the public go about their business.
The Department of Transport is right that some form of emissions upgrade for jeepneys is necessary. These “kings of the road” spew out thick diesel exhaust that contributes to the poor air quality in many Philippines cities. The question is how to improve the technology of these vehicles without impoverishing the thousands of drivers who rely on them for their livelihoods – often on very thin margins. According to one estimate, jeepney drivers take home average daily pay of 755 pesos (around $13.70).
While Philippine lawmakers have championed the interests of jeepney drivers, comments from government officials don’t offer much confidence in a mutual accommodation. Vice President Sara Duterte, who is also the country’s education secretary, called the strike “communist-inspired” and “a painful interference in our efforts to address the learning gaps and other woes in our education system.” The fact that some in the Philippine establishment are willing to dismiss calls for better working conditions in this way only underlines the need for mass industrial action on the part of drivers.