Drivers strike over plan to remove aging Philippine jeepneys

MANILA (AP): Philippine transport groups launched a nationwide strike Monday to protest a government program drivers fear would phase out traditional jeepneys, which have become a cultural icon, and other aging public transport vehicles.

Officials, however, braced with contingencies and deployed government vehicles to take stranded passengers in some areas. Other groups refused to join the weeklong strike that could keep more than 40,000 passenger jeepneys and vans off the streets in the Manila metropolis alone.

Protesting drivers and supporters held a noisy rally in suburban Quezon city in the capital region, then proceeded in a convoy to a government transport regulatory office to press their protest.

“We’re calling on the public to support the transport strike in any way possible,” said Renato Reyes of the left-wing political alliance Bayan, which was backing the strike. “The inconvenience of the transport stoppage is temporary, but the loss of livelihood of drivers and operators would be long-term.”

At almost noon, Transport Secretary Jaime Bautista said no major transport disruption had been monitored. Other officials said government vehicles were deployed to carry commuters in some areas but did not immediately provide more details.

“There is no disruption except in a handful of routes in the national capital region,” President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s office said by noon, citing reports from law enforcers.

Bautista warned that protesting drivers who would resort to violence and coercion to stop passenger vehicles not joining the strike would face criminal charges.

Vice President Sara Duterte, who also serves as education secretary, drew criticisms after saying the strike is a communist rebel-inspired action that may inconvenience students.

The government transport modernization program, first launched in 2017, aims to replace dangerously dilapidated and old passenger jeepneys and vans with modern vehicles, which have safety features and conform with carbon emissions standards. Vehicle owners have to join transport cooperatives and corporations by year’s end for better transport management.

Opponents say most poor drivers could not afford to purchase new passenger jeepneys even with promised government financial aid.

“It’s OK to have modernization for those who have money,” jeepney driver Benito Garcia told The Associated Press. “But for us jeepney drivers and operators, we cannot afford.”

Others said the program would mean the demise of the gaudily decorated and brightly colored jeepneys, which have been regarded as Manila’s “King of the Road” and a showcase of Philippine culture on wheels.

The diesel-powered jeepneys evolved from U.S. military jeeps that American forces left behind after World War II. The vehicles were modified and then reproduced, many with second-hand truck chassis, and for decades were the most popular form of land transport among the working class, even though they cough out dark fumes that have been blamed for Manila’s notoriously polluted air.