Is it possible for drivers to pay ‘boundary’ while observing social distancing?

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“​Marami sa kanila [jeepney drivers] ay namamalimos na sa kalsada para lamang makakain,” says Ernie Cruz, president of the National Confederation of Transport Workers Union.

Laguna (CNN Philippines Life) — Some transport options have been allowed to resume operations in Metro Manila, immediately following the shift to a General Community Quarantine. Commuters now have access to trains, point-to-point buses, taxis, and ride-hailing services — all of which are still functioning under limited capacity. But based on reports of the turnout of the capital region’s first day in GCQ, the quantity of transport options available is still inadequate when compared to the number of commuters.

Regular buses and modern jeepneys will only be allowed to resume operations on June 22. Meanwhile, there are no recent updates as to whether the ban on traditional jeepneys will be lifted, even as drivers and small-time operators resort to asking for dole-outs in the streets. In the three months of Enhanced Community Quarantine, some jeepney drivers and operators reportedly received no amelioration from the government, despite having no stable source of income due to the halt of public transportation.

On May 29, Bert Suansing, Senior Transport Consultant at the Department of Transportation (DOTr), told CNN Philippines through a phone interview that some units of traditional jeepneys may soon be allowed in the metro, to serve as supplement for buses and modern jeepneys.

"What we see, the buses and modern jeepneys are not enough to serve a route, so what we are doing is also allot some units of traditional jeepneys to run on those routes," said Suansing.

Still, this has led some to speculate that a jeepney phaseout may take place amid the pandemic. House Deputy Minority leader and Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Isagani Zarate, and transport group Pinagkaisang Samahan ng mga Tsuper at Operators Nationwide (Piston) expressed their concerns regarding the matter, telling the DOTr not to use the pandemic to push through getting rid of traditional jeepneys.

On June 1, drivers and small-time operators from across the country held an online protest called “Busina para sa Balik-Pasada” to call for resumption of jeepney operations.

Pushing for service contracting

Move As One, a broad civil society coalition, is proposing the implementation of service contracting, or having the government pay for public transport operations, as “a mechanism to protect our transport workers and ensure an adequate supply of public transport.”

“This policy will protect the families of millions of transport workers who are now at the brink of starvation, especially those who did not receive the promised aid,” says Ernie Cruz, president of the National Confederation of Transport Workers Union, a member organization of the Move As One Coalition. “​Marami sa kanila ay namamalimos na sa kalsada para lamang makakain.”

Under the GCQ where transport workers are forced to innovate in order to meet social distancing requirements, they bear the brunt of losing at least half of their regular seating capacity and profit. Typically, drivers rely on the number of passengers to meet needs under the “boundary system,” where they are to pay a fixed amount to operators from their total daily earnings. In fact, some drivers have already voiced their dismay, noting that they would no longer have enough to sustain their families if they are to receive half of their regular earnings, considering the boundary fee and other expenses for maintenance. The regulations under GCQ also open the possibility for several operators to shut down due to unprofitable operations.

By having the government pay land transport workers a per-kilometer fee to run their routes, workers no longer have to work under the terms of the boundary system.

“If the boundary system is still in place under GCQ, the financial burden falls on the transport sector and forces operators and drivers to absorb losses,” said Move as One Coalition in a statement given to the media. “Imposing a reduced vehicle supply and reduced passenger loads (for physical distancing) while still running on a boundary system increases the temptations for overloading and colorum PUVs.”

Miles Reyes, vice president of the Pagkakaisa ng Manggagawasa Transportasyon, adds: “Serving the public under those conditions, with reduced incomes and increased risks of infection, may be too much to ask of the transport sector. Many of them may opt not to run or may not earn enough income to survive.”

The service contracting model has been previously adapted by several cities when they contracted jeepneys and tricycles to provide free transport for essential workers during lockdown. DOTr also used the model to “augment the services of EDSA MRT when it was in crisis,” says Angie Mata, manager of Mandaue-Sabang-Danao Multicab Operators and Driver's Multi Purpose Cooperative, a member organization of Move As One Coalition.

The coalition proposes an investment of ₱30 billion to contract out not only jeepneys, but thousands of PUVs nationwide. “This will protect the jobs of our 2.7 million land transport workers in the country by providing the mastable source of income independent of the number of passengers they have,” the coalition said.

This investment will also, in extension, protect 88% of households without access to private vehicles, as well as the 20 million students across the country, who all rely on public transport.

“Public transportation must remain an essential public service centered on advancing the welfare of commuters while ensuring the safety and livelihood security of our transport workers, laborers, and cooperatives,” the coalition said. “This should be our priority in the transition towards a more inclusive public transportation system.”

But more than the push for service contracting, there is the need to ensure that traditional jeepneys can still operate under GCQ and the imminent "new normal". Jeepneys make up the 40% of PUVs in Metro Manila, with a rough estimate of 55,000 franchised units. This equates to, more or less, the same amount of families who depend on their livelihood in order to make ends meet. Whatever the future of traditional jeepneys is in Metro Manila and the country in general, thousands of lives are on the line.