Beginning last Monday, March 6, over 100,000 drivers and operators from various transport groups have been on a nationwide labor strike condemning the looming implementation of the Public Utility Vehicle Modernization Program (PUVMP), halting regular operations until March 12. Yet, even with the strike at play, the Land Transportation and Franchising Regulatory Board (LTFRB) could only extend the grace period of complying with its terms up until the end of the year.

This is the reality of our country’s current transport schema: the call for modernization has come at the cost of affecting the lives of Public Utility Vehicle (PUV) drivers and operators— investing in a shiny future with new and futuristic automobiles over job-stricken Filipinos wondering how to afford the bare minimum cost of living.

Prevailing as one of the previous administration’s top priorities, the PUVMP has been in the works since 2017. It resurfaced, after being delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as now part of President Marcos’ endeavor to supposedly ease the transportation problem in the country. This program basically aims to replace old units of jeepneys and minivans alike with modernized ones, upgraded with features such as no smoke belching and being fully powered by electricity, making it more efficient and environmentally safer for the road and the everyday commuter. As good as this implementation sounds on paper, all its obvious flaws reveal how such upgrades can be downgrading for the PUV workers to take such an abrupt shift.

The program's terms are destructive to lives and livelihoods. The average daily take-home income for PUV drivers is 500 pesos. Meanwhile, the proposed foreign-made transport units are steeply priced at 2.4-2.6M or 900,000 for a refurbished traditional jeepney. The burden of purchasing the vehicles is not easy, especially since the amount can be daunting to drivers.

Another term is 'Industry Consolidation', requiring cooperatives to house at least 15 units of the proposed new units to fully operate, directly obliterating small-scale franchises. The same units will also be licensed under foreign corporate magnates that may take hold of the compensation transactions. Like always, this Imeldific transport vision will be paid off by the public, with a projected fare hike of 20-40 pesos, threefold than the current fare price.

The drivers and operators are caught between two choices: to take the risk of ultimately leaving a job that has been the bread and butter for their families’ livelihoods, or succumb to pay off vehicle-acquisition debt just to be enslaved to years-worth of service that they did not even agree to in the first place. Regardless of which, both are valid to fuel a strike for change.

The transport strike is not just some baseless and irrational activism. Time and time again, we have seen labor unions take to the streets and protest against any policy that alarms their livelihoods. To strike is a laborer’s right, and this must be exercised especially for PUV drivers, which have been an integral part of society. To stand up for unfair conditions that clearly reflect on people’s lives is radical; a way for workers to find a leeway to reach government structures to act upon a more feasible alternative.

This week-long “inconvenience” to some determines a lifetime, possibly generational, financial burden to the drivers, operators, and their families. Those who are complicit enough to disagree and deem labor strikes as “nonsensical”, are the same ones who never had to worry about their livelihoods, or in this case, never rode a jeepney nor driven a public vehicle for hours under the heat of the sun and smoke just to get to their destination.

A proposed solution to a problem should not create more problems to solve. These jeepney drivers and the commuters they carry are the blood of our workforce-driven economy. As a developing nation, the idea of modernization is ideal, but the urgency to comply with its terms is what's making it so distasteful. What these workers need is not just an extension, but a choice and they must have the government working with them, not against them. They will be the ones who will drive these vehicles anyway, so might as well reserve the driver's seat for them to steer the terms favorable to all.

As of this writing, LTFRB Chairman Teofilo Guadiz has extended the phaseout’s deadline, initially being June 30 to the end of the year due to the recommendation given by President Marcos to further ‘review’ its terms. This also means that provisional authorities for jeepney operations would go on, but hopefully, this is not where it all stops. The strikes are still on, and all eyes are on the government as to what they will do next for the PUV drivers and commuters alike. To plan to progress without the supposed benefactors is the modus operandi of traditional inefficient politics— with policies disregarding the poor.

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