PUBLIC transport groups are demanding a just transition in the ongoing public utility vehicle (PUV) modernization program, wherein their workers' livelihoods and rights are secured.
Two of these groups, the Federation of Jeepney Operators and Drivers Association of the Philippines (Fejodap) and Piston, have been leading the protests against the current transition plan. However, they welcome the idea of modernizing their sector to help address climate change and environmental degradation.
"Our drivers are aware that pollution from their engines is one of the causes of climate change," said Zeny Maranan, national president of Fejodap.
Mody Floranda, national president of Piston, added that "the emissions from our vehicles need to be cleaner. When we talk about the environment, our drivers support it as they want to breathe cleaner air."
Under the current program, the government aims to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of said vehicles by switching to Euro IV-compliant or solar-powered engines. However, the groups assessed that current technologies for solar-powered vehicles are not yet suitable to address the needs of daily public transport.
Maranan stated that during their test drives of the new models around Quezon Avenue, the electric jeepneys struggled going uphill. She also questioned the readiness of current infrastructures needed for charging electric vehicles, stating that the government "should identify options for cost-effective batteries. Secondly, install charging stations. They say we can charge the batteries at home, but it's not feasible."
Both transport groups agree that the government's transition plan should focus on rehabilitating their vehicle fleets, especially on removing their outdated, polluting vehicles and upgrading the engines of others to Euro IV-compatible ones. Maranan noted that while solar-powered vehicles are not ready, even switching to cleaner fuels could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions from their sector in the meantime.
"Why shouldn't they allow us to drop-and-substitute? Throw away the old ones, replace them with newer models," she said.
Maranan said rehabilitating their vehicles would save them up to P1 million per unit, which is helpful for the welfare of their drivers, operators, and their families. It would also allow them to comply more easily with the modernization program.
Not an easy transition
Fejodap and Piston criticized the current transition plan as unjust to their sector. For instance, each modern unit costs up to P2.2 million, which will be paid up to seven years. Even with a P80,000 assistance from the government, they still regard this as too expensive.
Another issue involves the consolidation of small-time operators into cooperatives, as mandated by the Department of Transportation. These entities are designed to help drivers with the high costs of purchasing e-jeepneys and guarantee fixed incomes and social security and health benefits for drivers. However, they are worried about the management of these cooperatives.
With regards to providing a fixed income of P500 per day, Maranan stated that "we have engaged in discussions with operators regarding corporations. We have to start with five thousand pesos a month." This would not be enough for drivers to either pay for the newer vehicle models or even provide for their families.
The groups also criticized the entry of big businesses into the public transport sector. Floranda believes that the current government guidelines favor a potential monopolization by private groups. For instance, he noted that some of the major terminals for PUVs around the Philippines are located within the premises of malls, a sign of such takeover.
"These services should be provided by the State because this is their responsibility to its citizens. Why then is this government program oriented towards big businesses?" he said.
Floranda added that due to privatization and other challenges, "it's not just drivers and operators who will lose their livelihoods, but also those dependent on transport activities," including vulcanizing shops, carinderia owners, and others in the informal working sector.
To help address these issues, Floranda emphasized that the government must focus more on regulating private vehicles, noting that they not only outnumber PUVs in the country, but also pose a bigger challenge in addressing climate change and environmental pollution.
"Our vehicles have a small contribution to transport emissions. Private vehicles actually emit much more pollution," he said.
To make future transitions easier, Floranda also called for the establishment of industries in the Philippines for manufacturing vehicles.
He noted that "the Philippines has enough sources of raw materials for creating vehicles," which would allow the country to keep up with the fleets of other countries that can change components on a quicker basis.
Ultimately, public transport in the Philippines cannot undergo a just transition that helps solve the climate crisis if issues affecting other modes of transport are not addressed properly. "If the overall state of our transport system is really good, there will be fewer vehicles on the roads," Floranda said.
JL is the program manager of Climate Action for Sustainability Initiative (Kasali). This article was published through the support of Rosa Luxemberg Foundation and Climate Tracker's Climate Journalism Fellowship.