Traffic across the Philippines ground to a halt this week as jeepney and other public transport drivers staged a strike against a government program that aims to decommission their vehicles for cleaner-burning ones.

The street action, which brought traffic to a standstill in 18 cities nationwide on September 30, marked the third time drivers have protested against a scheme critics say will disproportionately impact the nation’s poor.

The program, one of President Rodrigo Duterte’s signature modernization drives, mandates that iconic jeepneys and other public utility vehicles (PUVs) that serve daily millions of Filipino commuters with cheap rides must be off the roads by July 2020.

Several of the country’s biggest transport coalitions, including Piston, Stop and Go, STOP and ACTO, led the whole-day demonstration, which also slammed a recent surge in oil prices driven by government deregulation policies.

On September 24, gasoline and diesel prices were raised by 2.3 and 1.8 pesos respectively, enabled by an Oil Deregulation Law that allows for unabated hikes. The subsidy-lifting policy will hit drivers and passengers with higher prices, just as the government contained a previous surge in basic commodity inflation.

Duterte’s Presidential Palace has said it will not be intimidated by the strikes and their potential impact on an already slowing economy, with his officials affirming that the transport modernization drive will not be deterred by the threat of more traffic-halting protests.

Martin Delgra, chairman of the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB), this week referred to the strikers as a “noisy few,” while claiming that most Filipinos are in favor of modernization.

Demonstrators hold signs protesting against an government plan to phase-out old jeepneys in a file photo. Photo: Twitter

That may or may not be true. The Philippines currently has about 170,000 operational jeepneys plying the nation’s roads. Delgra says that about 18,000 of them have already complied with the demands of the program to scrap old for new.

A Metro Manila Development Authority spokesperson also tagged this week’s stoppage of PUV operations as “unsuccessful” because they picked up stranded commuters by deploying vehicles offering free rides.

On the other side, Piston chairperson Mody Floranda deemed their strike a success, saying the disruption showed national opposition to the modernization policy and that the street action would not be their last.

He added that “we do not want to trouble commuters, we announce our strikes in advance. We do everything we can do appease any problems they will have, but a strike is an action of last resort. The survival of our livelihood depends on it.”

Jeepneys have been a mainstay on Philippine roads since the American colonial period in the early 1900s, evolving over the years into a national icon, replete with over-the-top decals and colorful paint jobs.

Bigger than a car but not quite a bus, jeepney passenger areas are big enough to fit 20 people on long benches. The vehicles’ layout requires a unique payment system that involves the participation of most, if not all, of the riders handing fares up the line to the driver.

While other PUVs will be also be made obsolete by the phase-out program, the decommissioning of jeepneys, critics and advocates say, will not only have negative economic impact but cultural significance as well.

Jeepneys in a parking lot waiting for passengers. Photo: Twitter

Apart from being the most common form of public transport, jeepneys are used and typically run by the poorer segments of the population. That means many will not be able to shoulder the costs necessary to comply with the policy.

The modernization plan, launched in June 2017, claims that the current generation of jeepneys are dangerous to the environment because they run on outdated polluting engines and that the overall efficiency of commuting will improve with newer, cleaner vehicles.

Piston, for one, said that striking drivers and groups are not against modernization per se, but rather oppose how it is being handled by the Duterte government, namely the policy’s requirement that drivers and owners must shoulder the entire cost of replacement.

Replacement units, according to Piston, cost between US$30,700 to $38,400 for jeepneys and $55,700 to $63,400 for larger so-called coaster vans.

That’s a big bill to pay considering that the average jeepney driver or single unit franchise owner only has between $3,800 to $7,690 in capital, Piston said, citing industry estimates. All replacement parts, meanwhile, must be sourced from only a select few companies that produce the more eco-friendly Euro-4 engine type.

The Ibon Foundation, a local think tank, has estimated that replacement costs will push many single vehicle owners or small fleet operators out of business in favor of deeper-pocketed corporations that can readily afford to buy and maintain big fleets of new PUVs.

That, in turn, will benefit big foreign auto manufacturers, as most of the required parts to be compliant with the policy must be imported.

“The government is planning to use public money to subsidize foreign car manufacturers to facilitate their entry to this big, new market of PUV assembly,” said Ibon Foundation researcher Glenis Balangue.

New mass transit vehicles that will replace jeepneys under the government’s transport modernization policy. Photo: Twitter

Hino Motors Philippines, established Marubeni by Japan’s Marubeni conglomerate and run by a Japanese owner, is one of the companies the government has tasked to build the cleaner replacement units.

While the government will subsidize part of the replacement costs worth up to $350, Ibon says that drivers will still be left wanting as they typically earn on average $6-8 per day.

“There can be modernization through repairs, rehabilitation and upgrading. Instead, we are being fed to the interests of capitalists who seek to monopolize jeepney production and maintenance,” Piston’s Floranda lamented.

He has decried the government’s program as a corporate takeover of the local transport industry disguised as development. Duterte, elected in part on a pro-poor populist ticket, has been particularly unsympathetic to the strikers.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte gives the thumbs up in the cab of a modern car. Photo: Twitter

“You’re poor? Son of a bitch, suffer hardship and hunger, I don’t care,” he lashed out at the striking protesters while defending the modernization program.

The harsh rhetoric has been accompanied by retaliatory actions. A day before the September 30 strike, the LTFRB announced the cancellation of 20 jeepney franchises for those who participated in the first strike held against the modernization program in 2017.

The 20 franchise holders, the agency said, had proven to be participants of the strike and had dealt a major inconvenience to the commuting public.

LTFRB spokesperson Aileen Lizada said her agency will take similar legal action against those who participated in this week’s and future strikes.