New Internationalist

The Flash and Curse of Manila Traffic

Issue 092

Long axle jeeps, the Filipino Jeepneys were first cobbled together from US army vehicles dumped after World War Two. Today these private buses dominate the streets of Manila. Ruth Seitz quizzes one Jeepney driver about his life and work.

Jeepneys are both the flash and curse of Manila traffic. These long-bed diesel­run jeeps take 16-18 (or more) passengers along designated routes. Adorned with slogans and gaudy folk designs they throb with a disco beat and wear amusing ornaments like rocking horses on the bonnet.

But when several tens of thousands of these vehicles hit the Philippine capital’s pot-holed streets to haul workers and students through the morning chaos their usual sign ‘God Bless our Trip’ seems like an under-prayer.

That the cost of the ride has jumped three times this year worries commuters trying to deal with 24 per cent inflation while wage hikes are stalled in a govern­ment round table.

As a jeepney driver facing rising prices 43-year-old Maximo Maipid feels that he is riding out a futile journey with no promise - and one that he can’t afford to stop. He is trapped between a miserable job and the needs of his six children. Mopping his brow is the only immediate relief he knows.

I met Max on one of his ‘off-days’ when ‘I’m flat dead on the bed to recover’. As a regular, he drives every other day. At dawn Max picks up his jeepney at a terminal and begins his 6 mile route through the University belt of the city. ‘My partner and I agree to fill the jeepney with petrol at the end of a working day so that the other one can begin running, even without cash.’ And then the jeepney fills up with passengers each paying a minimum of 60 centavos with longer rides having higher rates proportionately.

For the use of the jeepney a driver pays a daily ‘boundary fee’ to the owner This fixed rate is determined by how heavily the route is travelled and how long it is. Max resents that the owner of his Sarao jeepney collects $16 from him every day ‘without lifting a finger’ while the maximum a jeepney driver can take home after a long day from 4 a m. to 9 p m. is $12.

That must last for two days. It provides only bare necessities. Meat and powdered milk have long been slashed from their family diet. School fees have priority.

Through the long working hours drivers endure smothering heat and the fumes of low-grade diesel. According to the Metro-Manila Commission, industrial pollution exceeds the maximum safe level.

According to Max who has been driving public vehicles since he was 18 the owner of a jeepney covers repairs but breakdowns mean a loss of earning power for a driver. Max’s jeepney is several years old and patched with rebuilt parts.

He laughed as he spooned some taho (warm yogurt) from a glass. ‘Foreigners think that jeepneys are made here from scratch, but the engines are put together with junk surplus from Japanese firms like Mitsubishi and Isuzu.’

Knowledgeable about mechanics Max says he feels unsafe in his jeepney, ‘The shoes and drums of the brakes are too small for the long body.’

Besides gas hikes and breakdowns, corruption also dips into a driver’s earn­ings. The system reveals itself first when buying a licence. A driver, says Max, pays 300 per cent more than the stated cost.

Lagay is payment to policemen for traffic violations, either actual or alleged. ‘An officer who pulls me to a stop with his whistle makes me come inside his booth or in an entranceway so the passengers won’t see me handing over the money. He states the price on the basis of the cost of the fine.’ But bargaining is acceptable. ‘You can bargain your own life and your earnings. If you have an unlucky day, you might be apprehended 3-5 times.’

Max asserts that a policeman is an enemy, not a protector. ‘They have another tactic called tong to extract money. During each trip along his route a driver is expected to give a policeman 25 centavos. I run my route 8 times a day. We used to give it directly but since the New Society supposedly wiped out corruption, the system is more hidden. A vendor selling flower garlands comes to my wheel at a red light to collect for the policeman. She keeps a share - usually 10 per cent.’

In the evening the day’s accumulated fares in the money box on the dash welcomes thieves. Drivers don’t hesitate to use their tubo, an iron rod also used to measure the fuel level, as a weapon.

Drivers combat increasing expenses and potential losses by overcharging. After an inflationary round, commuters are unsure of the correct fares for various distances, and jeepney drivers take advantage of this. Drivers size up a passenger - and ‘forget’ to give change to rich-looking or absent-minded ones.

Being a ‘regular’ is a privileged position among transportation workers. For every jeepney on the road, there are 2-5 extra drivers who only work once or twice a week. And there are numerous more ‘extras’ for cab and bus companies.

Many drivers,’ says Max, ‘believe that if they strive, work hard, maybe their lives will change.’ To consolidate this wish they have formed drivers’ associations - the leading union, Pasang Masda, claiming 23,000 members.

But when their leadership recently promoted a freeze on fare hikes after fuel went up another 30 per cent, the members were disenchanted. Hundreds of members have regrouped under another union. But the power of these semi­unions is limited.

Highly politicized, Max has harsh words for the gasoline capitalists. ‘The only alternative is for the poor of the world to fight for their lives.’

A North American freelance reporter, Ruth Seitz lives in The Philippines.

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