By Joseph B.A. Marzan
Human rights defenders and lawyers based in Panay on Friday slammed the national government’s recent moves on the Public Utility Vehicle Modernization Program (PUVMP), highlighting the legal and economic woes being faced by transport sector workers that were aggravated by the said program.
The National Union of People’s Lawyers-Panay Chapter (NUPL-Panay) lamented the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board’s (LTFRB) Memorandum Circular No. 2023-13.
The issuance, among other things, mandates operators of Public Utility Jeepneys, Filcabs, and UV Express services to consolidate their franchises under transport cooperatives between March 31 to June 30, 2023.
LTFRB Chairperson Teofilo Guadiz III on Wednesday, March 1, announced that the June 30 deadline was extended to December 31.
But even with this extension, NUPL-Panay highlighted the program as a violation of the rights of transport franchise operators to their freedom of association and their right to due process under the 1987 Constitution.
“Just as one has the liberty to form or join an organization, that individual has every right in refusing to do so. No person can be compelled to become a member of any group, and cancelling a franchise because of his or her refusal is a clear violation of that freedom of choice,” NUPL-Panay said in a statement on Friday.
“[T]he drivers and operators who stand to have their franchises revoked have not violated any law, yet, the government would deprive them of their livelihoods for failing to consolidate,” it added.
The group also pointed to Article 4(1) of Republic Act No. 9520, which states that “Cooperatives are voluntary organizations[.]”, as well as Convention 87 of the International Labor Organization, which states, “workers and employers, without distinction whatsoever, shall have the right to establish and, subject only to the rules of the organization concerned, to join organizations of their own choosing without previous authorization.”
“Joining a cooperative must, in essence, be a voluntary act. An indispensable principle of being in a cooperative is that membership is purely voluntary, as highlighted in Article 4 of the Philippine Cooperative Code of 2008 – a principle with which mandatory consolidation is directly in conflict. Being part of a cooperative involves numerous responsibilities including the payment of membership fees and contributions and compliance with its rules and regulations. Hence, membership must be voluntary, not coerced through administrative issuances like the LTFRB memorandum,” the group added.
Amid their oppositions to the edicts issued by the LTFRB and its parent agency, the Department of Transportation (DOTr), NUPL-Panay said the government’s objectives were valid but pointed out that it must also be considerate to current problems that transport sector workers face.
“The law still protects the public from the arbitrary and abusive exercise of state power, and the revocation of a franchise on the ground cited by the LTFRB regulation is, apart from being abusive and arbitrary, a serious infringement on a constitutionally protected freedom,” they reiterated.
“While modernizing the transport system is a valid state objective, it cannot be done in a manner that transgresses fundamental rights. More importantly, a modernization program should not unduly burden the public, create financial hardships for small transport operators, or put thousands of drivers out of work and potentially bring them and their families to the brink of poverty,” they added.
RIGHTS TO STRIKE, ECONOMIC WOES
Human rights defenders group Karapatan Panay in its own statement, meanwhile, focused on the upcoming nationwide transport strike initiated by several transport sector groups, expressing that it was a necessary sacrifice, risking their economic security at a time when inflation retains its height.
Like other progressive groups, Karapatan described the current PUVMP policies as “drastic” and “disadvantageous to jeepney drivers,” highlighting the lack of consideration of the current economic situation and the detrimental effects that the policies would have on the public transport sector.
“When government policies threaten the welfare of large sectors of the public and the affected sectors move to peaceably oppose such policies, the actions they take are well within the rights enshrined in the Constitution. This is the case with the transport sector and recently-announced week-long strike various groups intend to hold in opposition to the so-called jeepney modernization program,” Karapatan said in its statement.
Karapatan suggested that the national government must actively engage in improving or rehabilitating existing units, or greater subsidies for the purchase and distribution of ‘modernized’ mini-bus type of jeepneys.
Such moves, the group said, would lessen the ‘shifting of the burden’ to jeepney drivers and operators of buying the modernized units themselves, which they called an “inhumane, anti-poor, and detrimental” approach towards the transport sector.
“Without sufficient state support, drivers and small operators are saddled with enormous debt and face imminent bankruptcy as their jeepney units have to be phased out and replaced by expensive mini-buses. It is the large vehicle manufacturers that are making huge profits from this plan while the drivers’ cooperatives are forced to take on loans to purchase these mini-buses without any certainty of being able to pay the installments,” they said.