Updated: December 14, 2017 03:55 AM GMT
Protesters lie on the pavement at a busy intersection in Manila during a transport strike in October to oppose the planned phase-out of aging public utility vehicles in the Philippine capital. (Photo by Maria Tan)
Transport workers who protest against the planned phasing out of the iconic Philippine "jeepney" will be met by rubber bullets, President Rodrigo Duterte has warned.
The Philippine president challenged transport groups, which paralyzed the capital Manila two months ago with a strike, to go ahead with another protest action.
"Try me," said Duterte. "Go ahead. I’m preparing the armed forces and the police to buy rubber bullets," the president threatened.
"I don’t care if we go into turmoil. That is what I like. I thrive best in a turmoil [sic]," he added.
The president has announced that he wants an estimated 70,000 old jeepneys in Manila off the streets by January 2018.
The jeepney is the most popular means of public transport in the Philippines. It is known for colorful decorations that have become a popular symbol of Philippine culture.
The Duterte administration has offered "jeepney" drivers new vehicles that will cost at least US$28,000, with a $1,600 subsidy for down payments.
Critics, however, said that repayment costs are beyond the earning capacity of drivers or those who rent the vehicles.
The drivers would need to pay US$16 per day for seven years.
A study by independent think-tank Ibon Foundation noted that most transport workers only earn US$10 to US$13 per day.
Under the government's new transport program for Manila, the new jeepneys coming out in January can only ply the capital's side streets.
Opposition Senator Grace Poe warned against the premature implementation of the program.
She said the government needs US$9 billion to replace 270,000 jeepneys that are operating nationwide.
For the subsidy alone, the government needs US$45.2 million, said Poe, chairwoman of the Senate's Public Services Committee.
She said there are few takers of the government offer because of the complicated scheme. The application and registration for a loan alone will take months.
Bishop Gerarda Alminaza of San Carlos, chairman of the group Church People-Workers Solidarity, said the poor should not bear the cost of government modernization.
"The government should make sure the labor sector won’t be gravely disadvantaged with whatever measure they adopt," said the prelate.
"Are there safety nets provided for the sectors greatly affected by the phase-out?" he asked.
The president, however, defended his decision, blaming drivers of public utility vehicles of polluting the capital.
"We are really being killed almost everyday, slowly," said Duterte. "You can see [pollution] floating over the city, fumes, carbon dioxide, and all," he added.
Manila is one of the world’s most congested megacities. It has a daytime population of 15 million. An estimated nine million people commute to work daily.
Sonny Africa, executive director of Ibon Foundation, said up to 80 percent of Manila’s pollution comes from transport vehicles, including aging jeepneys.
But Africa said the number of jeepneys is way below the estimated one million private vehicles that go around the capital daily.
"Aiming to have less emissions and more efficient mass transport is laudable," he said, "but you don’t make the poor pay for decades of government neglect."
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