Riding the crossroads: The battle of Manila’s jeepney drivers against modernization

Photos by Vince Bartolome/Bulatlat


MANILA – Standing as an iconic symbol of the nation’s culture and resilience, jeepneys, which are upcycled leftover World War II U.S. Willy Jeeps, were the solution to the country’s post-war public transportation problem in the early 1950s. For decades, these colorful vehicles have been the lifeblood of the nation’s public transportation system, providing an affordable means of mobility for millions of commuters everyday.

However, the road ahead for these vehicles have taken an uncertain turn in the face of the government’s plan to modernize the jeepney.

Last Dec. 31, 2023, due to a ban because of the government’s new emission standards, jeepneys were slated to disappear from the streets for good. In Metro Manila, an estimated number of 8.9 million riders will have to find new ways to navigate the city, while jeepney drivers will lose their primary source of livelihood. The deadline was moved to January 31, but later on was extended to April 30, 2024.

The country’s public transport modernization comes in the heels of the government’s supposed attempts to address the climate crisis by reducing carbon emissions by eliminating what they said were outdated engines that run jeepneys.

According to the United Nations, the Philippines is one of the most vulnerable countries when it comes to climate change. As the country struggles with annual economic losses due to extreme weather conditions, the country is now trying to move towards an energy efficient and climate resilient environment.

However, environmental activists have long said addressing only carbon emissions offers nothing but a false solution to the worsening climate crisis. For just transition to genuinely happen, efforts to address the climate crisis must center on “the development of human potential, creating opportunities for people to learn, grow, and develop” and “actively work against and transform current and historic social inequities based on race, class, gender, immigrant status and other forms of oppression.”

Read: Drivers, commuters suffer from PUV ‘modernization’

In the crowded streets of Metro Manila, 51-year-old jeepney driver Reynaldo Legaspi found himself at the forefront of a protest in Monumento Circle, Caloocan, late last year. The sidewalk, teeming with banners and chants of dissenting voices, became a stage for Legaspi’s defiance against the threats to his livelihood.

Legaspi, a leader and a voice for jeepney drivers, held a banner that read “No to PUV Phaseout.” Around him, slogans painted in bold strokes conveyed the drivers’ plea for their livelihood. “Serbisyo hindi negosyo [Social services, over profit]” read one placard, while another bore the plea, “Support and assistance for drivers and operators.”

Jeepney drivers were joined by students and activists who were supporting their cause in a protest action in the Bonifacio Monument, where at least four major roads of the Philippine capital meet.

Both public and private vehicles usually ply the busy intersection. But during the protest, a convoy of vibrantly painted jeepneys were parked along the streets as a symbol of their resistance. The government program will pave way for so-called “modern jeepneys,” which amount to at least P2 million each.

The amount, jeepney drivers like Legaspi said, is out of reach for most of them as they only earn about 600 to 700 pesos a day ($10-12).

Legaspi chanted, “Jeepney phaseout, ibasura! [Scrap the jeepney phaseout!]”

Reynaldo Legaspi (Photo by Vince Bartolome/Bulatlat)

During the pandemic

Legaspi was already on his fourth cigarette when Bulatlat chanced upon him. He was lucky enough to afford a fresh pack of cigarettes that day.

He had long been part of meetings and protests as the president of the Caloocan Divisoria Traditional Transport Group. During the pandemic, he struggled to support himself and his partner, Hazel, who was then four months pregnant.

In 2020, when the Philippine government ordered a lockdown of the entire Metro Manila region due to the rising COVID-19 cases, Legaspi’s partner Hazel had to move to Bulacan, a province an hour or two away from Metro Manila, to live with her parents.

Legaspi, on the other hand, stayed in an old house in Tondo, Manila along with a fellow jeepney driver, Filmar, and his family. Hunger became their constant companion as government assistance was sporadic and hardly enough to cover their needs to say the least.

With loved ones to provide for and bills piling up, they had no choice but to rely on the generosity of others.

Legaspi would walk for miles, knocking at neighborhood sundry stores to beg or loan for food. On some days, he would be lucky enough to receive some rice and afford a 10-piece packet of tuyo or sun-dried fish, with each size averaging about three inches. He would stretch these for several days and eat only one per day, splitting the fish for lunch and dinner.

But a month of lockdown soon turned into a year. Those who were once willing to help had eventually shut their windows to goodwill, leaving the jeepney drivers in a dire situation.

In July 2021, Legaspi gathered a group of 11 men between the ages of 34 and 68 who were willing to walk five miles to the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) to seek assistance. In the morning of their journey, Legaspi sat on the porch with a cup of watered down coffee in one hand and a used cigarette butt in the other, which he’d found when rummaging through trash cans to search for loose change. But his fingers stained with grime had found nothing but discarded cigarette butts.

“Another cigarette for breakfast,” Filmar said, appearing from behind him. “We have to find something, anything to eat.”

At around 10 a.m, Legaspi and his group began their five-mile walk in silence under the scorching sun. After half an hour, several of the group’s elderly members, some who suffered from asthma, struggled to keep up with the pace. Jesse, a weathered 62-year-old jeepney driver, coughed in deep, rasps.

“We were barely halfway. Please just go home,” Legaspi told him.

But Jesse, with his thin frame and wheezing breath, said, “I have a family to feed, and I am not giving up.”

Legaspi nodded. They pressed on, their steps growing slower. A few members of the group had started to feel lightheaded from the relentless heat, but they pushed through, leaning on one another for support. Legaspi’s initiative would eventually lead him to be voted president of his now 250-member transport group in 2022.

After two hours, they reached the DOLE building in Intramuros, Manila. The group of 11, many with underlying health conditions, now watched as Legaspi stepped forward and approached the DOLE staff. He asked the officials for help, explaining their dire circumstances.

“We’re not asking for handouts,” Legaspi said. “We were willing to work, but we need support to stand on our own feet.”

Legaspi was eventually allowed to speak to a manager, who advised him to travel to a different building to list down his and his friend’s information to receive work as street sweepers. While hope was given, all they took home that night was another defeat and uncertainty. The labor department’s job offer, however, did not arrive until after three months.

Photos by Vince Bartolome/Bulatlat

Under a Marcos administration

In the previous presidential elections, Legaspi took a chance and voted for Ferdinand Marcos Jr. This was in hopes that he would fund the transport modernization program as per his promise. He also promised decent homes and livelihood programs for jeepney drivers and their families. But this has not been fulfilled.

“He’s a liar,” Legaspi said, “He had a meeting with us, saying that the phaseout is not necessary; they could just improve the jeepneys. As a father, you should be an example to your children. The deceit should not come from your own camp. Those below you will just copy you.”

As of March 2024, 68 percent of jeepney units nationwide have undergone consolidation, according to independent think-tank IBON Foundation. Critics attribute this to the low government subsidy to jeepney drivers, amounting to P160,000 or about 5.7 percent of the total modern jeepney cost.

The LTFRB maintains that its program does not aim to phase out the iconic jeepney but, at the very least, intends to upgrade its components for environmental sustainability. While the LTFRB sees consolidation as a crucial initial step in the PUV modernization program, jeepney drivers believe that the initiative will eventually lead to the phasing out of their units, compelling them to purchase new, modernized jeeps that are financially out of reach.

Should they opt for modernized jeepneys, drivers estimate needing a daily income of at least P3,500 to cover substantial loans. Joining a cooperative or corporation entails transferring the ownership of the jeepney from the individual operator to the cooperative that drivers and operators find unfavorable.

Meanwhile, commuters stand to suffer from increased fares. IBON Foundation earlier noted that the minimum fare was only P8 before the supposed modernization. The think-tank said that it can increase to “around P15-25 for the next three to five years and then heading towards P45 to P50 or more after this – not immediately but, certainly, in that general direction.”

Throughout the year, Legaspi firmly stood by his belief. He had no intentions of joining a cooperative. He often brushed off questions of what he will do when the time comes.

In 2023, when Legaspi thought that it would be the end for his jeepney, he could not help but worry for fellow drivers, particularly their elderly members.

“Most members in my group are seniors,” he said, “My father is 72 years old, yet he drives every day because he doesn’t want to rely on his children. He needs money for medication, electricity and water to survive. Where will they find a livelihood? I’m sure no company would want to hire them anymore, right?”

Still, Legaspi is determined to defend their rights. “I am going to fight until the end.” (RTS, JJE, RVO) (https://www.bulatlat.org)

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