LTFRB aid and subsidies not reaching transport workers, jeepney drivers say

Franco Luna - Philstar.com
LTFRB aid and subsidies not reaching transport workers, jeepney drivers say
Jeepney Drivers in Caloocan City who are not yet allowed to operate ask for alms amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which has left millions of Filipinos jobless due to to the government's measures against the virus.
The STAR / Michael Varcas

MANILA, Philippines — Money meant to subsidize the transportation sector during the lockdowns did not benefit drivers and operators of public utility vehicles, transport groups and advocates said Monday in light of audits on government spending during the quarantine.

The Commission on Audit, in its 2020 report on the department, said the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board only used around P59 million of the P5.58 billion funds for the Service Contracting Program, where transport operators are paid for driving their routes despite lower passenger capacities.

Jeepney drivers had to beg on the streets early on in the pandemic after the suspension of most modes of transportation left them sidelined. To date, many continue to appeal for support to make ends meet, while some have been forced to live in their jeepneys. 

At an online press briefing Monday, Mody Floranda, president of transport group Pagkakaisa ng mga Samahan ng Tsuper at Opereytor Nationwide or Piston said that none of the 800,000 operators, drivers, and transport workers across the country felt that any money was allotted to support them to begin with. 

"The amount they're saying was allotted to aid us never actually got to the drivers," Floranda said in Filipino. 

"That's why it's surprising to us that this report from COA said there was P5 billion allotted to us, because this should have been given to drivers during the quarantine...we still don't know when it will be given."

READ: Less than 15% of service contracting funds used by gov't

Floranda said this sentiment was felt among workers in all modes of transportation, including buses, taxis, tricycles and UV Express vans.

Why does this matter?

Thousands of drivers and operators have lost their main sources of livelihood amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Under service contracting, drivers and operators of public utility vehicles are subsidized by the national government according to how many kilometers they drive on their routes instead of the boundary system where they're paid off how many passengers they serve. 

Jeepney drivers and operators in areas under quarantine are already expected to enforce quarantine rules in their units, which can only take in half of their capacity due to social distancing rules. 

READ: In ECQ 'bubble', checkpoints for commuter safety harm hard-up drivers

Without service contracting subsidies, drivers have been forced to stay at home in the enhanced community quarantine rather than operate at a loss. The ones that do brave the crowded checkpoints say they only earn around P250 per day. 

This, in turn, affects commuters who still have to report to work in person. 

LTFRB chair Martin Delgra earlier defended the slow pace of the service contracting rollout, saying the board had a hard time processing that much data.

But Nolan Grulla, himself a jeepney driver who serves as the spokesperson of the UP Transport Group, pointed to the difficulties of the required online registration and the "roadworthiness" requirements forcing drivers to refit their vehicles before being accepted as factors hampering drivers from signing up.

"It's been 17 months of [these requirements]...where else are we going to get our income if they don't give us any support?" he said in Filipino. 

"We're not going away. We're just fighting for our right to make a living...we've been enduring so much for so long." 

Jeepney 'modernization' waiting in the wings

Grulla added that the looming threat of jeepney modernization added to the concerns of the drivers who didn't sign up. "Why would you refit [your vehicles] if later on we'll just be removed?"

"What hurts is that the government is using these funds instead to phase out public transport in the middle of a pandemic," Floranda agreed.

"Even if some of us have finally continued plying routes again, their phaseout project continues...what they did is cut off our routes and refuse to recognize our franchises," he added. 

READ: Delayed service contracting program leaves many transport workers on sidelines

The modernization program, initiated in 2015, is facing resistance from drivers and operators who say they cannot shoulder a large chunk of the P2.4-million price tag of one modernized jeepney and still manage to feed their families.

In response, transportation authorities doubled the existing subsidy for the modernized vehicle to P160,000. Transport experts and advocates, however, said that this was still not enough support given that the vehicle’s cost also increased amid the pandemic. 

Floranda on Monday also hit the Cebu provincial government's memorandum requiring air purifiers for every public utility vehicle driver and conductor.

"This is an added burden on the already hard-up drivers. What we need is better vaccination and more serious contact tracing," he said. 

Lawmakers hit 'penny pinching' in public transport subsidies

Also at the online presser was Rep. Sarah Elago (Kabataan Party-List) who lamented the "criminal" amount that she said was wasted by the transportation department and the LTFRB. 

"It's the government that denied aid, but if we can recall, it was also the national government that closed the routes of the jeepney drivers and prohibited them from driving even when they let other vehicles back on the road," she said in Filipino. 

In a statement, opposition Sen. Leila de Lima also pointed to the past stories of elderly jeepney drivers who also had to beg on the streets despite being senior citizens. 

"This is just proof of the indifference of the Duterte regime...Where is the concern? Where's the justice?" De Lima said in Filipino.

"To the LTFRB and to this government: The pandemic is not over. And in what you are doing, it is far from ending. The excuse is enough. Even if you reverse your angle and propaganda, it is clear that the help that is coming is sorely lacking. Have mercy, do not allow the long-destitute and impoverished to be completely submerged in the whirlwind of debt, hunger, and hardship."

with a report from Bella Perez-Rubio 

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