MANILA, Philippines — Decrying discrimination, a group of jeepney drivers asked the Supreme Court on Tuesday to nullify government orders during the COVID-19 pandemic that gave least priority to them when public utility vehicles (PUVs) were gradually allowed to operate again.
Sixteen jeepney drivers from the cities of Mandaluyong and Manila and the National Confederation of Transport Workers’ Union (NCTU) challenged the Duterte administration’s guidelines on public transportation during the pandemic.
They said the policies that discriminated against public utility jeepneys (PUJs) violated the separation of powers, the valid exercise of police power, equal protection under the law and international law on human rights.
The Inter-Agency Task Force for the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases, Office of the Cabinet Secretary, Department of Transportation (DOTr) and Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) were named respondents.
The drivers, most of whom are leaders of the operators and jeepney drivers associations in their areas, were represented by lawyers from the Initiatives for Dialogue and Empowerment through Alternative Legal Services led by Mario Maderazo.
The government prohibited all jeepneys in March when the country was placed on lockdown to stop the spread of the new coronavirus that causes the severe respiratory disease COVID-19. When quarantine measures were eased and jeepneys were gradually allowed back on the road, “traditional public utility jeepneys were placed last in priority, or not at all,” the drivers said in their 65-page petition.
“To make matters worse, the issuances showed an obvious preference to modernized jeepneys even though [there] are no substantial distinction between modernized and traditional jeepneys,” they said.
“Traditional jeepney” is a misnomer. It refers to the jeepney, the converted US military vehicle that has become the backbone of public transportation in the Philippines. The so-called modern jeepneys are actually air-conditioned minibuses that the government has allowed to operate on selected routes in Metro Manila. These vehicles run only up to early evening, unlike jeepneys, which operate beyond midnight to ferry night workers to their jobs and day workers home, and ply city routes not served by buses but where businesses are located.
The petitioners questioned the authority of the coronavirus task force, the DOTr and the LTFRB to “unilaterally and indefinitely suspend public transportation.”
When public transportation was gradually allowed to operate, they said, “traditional PUJs were singled out without sufficient basis and without effort on the part of the respondents to inform traditional PUJs of the fact of and the rationale of the discrimination.”
There were also no clear standards in choosing which jeepneys were to be allowed to ply the roads, they said.
The drivers said they had been working for decades, and used to earn P400 to P1,500 daily.
Since the lockdown, they have lost their only source of income, they said. Even those among the petitioners who have part-time jobs or try to make a living by selling snacks cannot earn enough to cover their family’s basic needs.
One petitioner who was allowed to drive his jeepney again said he could only transport a few passengers daily. “The above injuries are traceable to the assailed issuances made by respondents when they allowed all PUVs, except traditional jeepneys, to operate upon the ease of quarantine measures in [Metro Manila] without basis,” the drivers said.
Not much difference
They pointed out that jeepneys, minibuses and the UV Express vans “do not have much differences” since they seat almost the same number of passengers and their routes are mostly the same.
As of June, they said, only a handful of public utility buses and minibuses were allowed back on the road and it was only on July 3, or four months after they were told to cease operations, that jeepneys were allowed to operate again in Metro Manila. But the jeepneys ceased operations again from Aug. 19 to Sept. 3 when Metro Manila reverted to stricter community quarantine. The jeepney drivers said the government categorically preferred the so-called modern jeepneys.
The LTFRB orders allowing certain jeepneys to operate on certain routes “highlight the LTFRB’s outright and continuing discrimination against traditional PUJs as it openly favors operators that comply with the PUVMP (public utility vehicle modernization program) and OFG (omnibus franchising guidelines)-compliant vehicles,” they said.
“The respondents’ actions of excluding traditional PUJs when all other PUVs were allowed, including modernized jeepneys, run contrary to the equal protection clause of the Constitution because they failed to justify the distinction between modernized and traditional PUJs,” they added. The drivers told the Supreme Court that despite the promise that more jeepneys would be allowed to run again, the government can unilaterally place the country again under stricter community quarantine and prohibit jeepneys from operating.
By: Dona Pazzibugan
This article was first published by the Philippine Daily Inquirer.