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Militant jeepney groups are once more launching a transport strike this week. It follows on the heels of an earlier protest last month. They are demanding the suspension of the December 31 deadline for jeepneys to be consolidated into fleets organized as cooperatives or corporations. Further, they are questioning the public utility vehicle modernization scheme itself.
The resistance to jeepney modernization spotlights the economic difficulties faced by informal transport workers since the pandemic. Thus, it is no wonder that little attention is paid to the mental health problems of jeepney drivers and operators. Mental health is stereotypically a concern of Gen Z workers and not expected to be an issue for baby boomers and Gen Xers, the demographic of most jeepney workers.
But it can be argued that informal transport workers experienced a silent pandemic of mental health issues. This is the conclusion of a case study I undertook about operators and drivers amidst COVID-19. This was due to the widespread loss of income and livelihood as a result of lockdowns and the uncertainty created by the jeepney modernization plan.
To recall, the COVID quarantines banned all forms of public transport. Only after two and half months, with the loosening of the lockdowns, did some types of public transport, excluding jeepneys, were allowed. It took more than three months before the first modern (not traditional) jeepneys organized in fleets were allowed to drive through the streets and only those which complied with the regulations. Later, routes operated by traditional jeepneys slowly went back into service as the country got out of the pandemic.
These extreme economic difficulties set the context for the mental health issues of jeepney operators and drivers. The extent of the humanitarian crisis experienced in particular by informal jeepney workers was expressed by them begging for food or alms at the height of the lockdowns.
In interviews I conducted with jeepney transport leaders and mobility advocates, there was a consensus that the extended loss of livelihood during the pandemic was an important cause of mental health problems of informal jeepney workers. It was a silent pandemic since jeepney operators and drivers would not admit to its presence as a condition to be treated.
Rarely acknowledged by the jeepney drivers themselves, the symptoms of mental health problems were expressed in various forms. One, extreme sadness, if not outright depression. Second, incidents of anger at family members and friends. Third, low self-esteem at the loss of “breadwinner” status. Finally, inability to adapt and function normally in a situation of lack of income and the uncertainty of regaining livelihood due to the jeepney modernization plan.
A female jeepney operator described the situation like this: “During the pandemic, mental health and stress of jeepney drivers and operators became a cause for concern. They couldn’t drive. They had no livelihood. They had no boundary. Also they were afraid of getting COVID-19. So you get stressed. When you go out to drive, you don’t know if you will get exposed. But if you don’t go out then you will die of hunger. It was really stressful. These were stories that our members told us. Although they did not know that it was already mental stress. They did not have an awareness of mental health issues. They were always saddled with problems. Of course when we are confronted with problems, we get stressed. But they did not realize it was already a mental health issue.”
Most jeepney operators and drivers were full-time in their jobs and thus had identities as breadwinners for their families. Their working hours were more than the normal working day of eight hours so, as a result, they usually had little contact with their children. Their spouses bore the burden of maintaining the family even as their wives may have their own paid work in the informal economy. Thus, the identity, status and role of many jeepney operators and drivers were tied to their economic role as income-earners in the family. But the loss of their jobs during the pandemic shattered this “normality” and led to mental anguish.
Jeepney drivers and operators who were forced to stay at the home during the pandemic lockdown had difficulty finding new roles to play in the households since this had traditionally been their spouses’ role. Much of the drivers’ sense of community had also been tied up with camaraderie among fellow jeepney workers in their informal garages, such as by playing basketball, but this form of socialization was closed as a result of the lockdown.
One advocate who happened to be the child of a jeepney driver, stated that, “Our transport workers will not admit that they have depression. I don’t think they are able to identify it. Sadness and the range of emotions associated with it is not something they communicate openly. Our transport workers take pride in their hard work and ability to provide for their families. When that is taken away from them, they feel worthless and usually respond to the situation by lashing out to the people they love. After the display of anger, they’re usually apologetic but not because of their emotions. They constantly say sorry to their families for not being able to give enough.”
Further, most jeepney drivers and operators had been working in the sector for the better part of their lives and thus would be quite challenged looking for a new job. Likewise, as informal workers with little in educational attainment, they are mostly low-skilled who would find it difficult transitioning to a new job in ordinary situations but especially during the pandemic.
In an even worse situation were those jeepney drivers who had not yet settled down in the cities and were recent migrants from the provinces. Those who were not able to leave the cities in time to go back to the provinces had to temporarily use their jeepneys as lodging spaces. For the extended period of the lockdown, they lived in their jeepneys but without an income to sustain themselves.
The study found that jeepney associations did not have any direct intervention for its members at the level of diagnosing and treating mental health issues. This was initially due to their own lack of awareness of it as a problem. And even when they became cognizant, organizations had limited financial resources to organize a direct medical response.
Still, the campaign of jeepney groups to mitigate the impact of the pandemic and the modernization plan did indirectly respond to the mental health issues of operators and drivers. One jeepney leader said that, “Actually we had no programs such as counseling that specifically cater to mental health issues. But we contributed to alleviating the anxiety of jeepney drivers and operators by assisting them in their problems.… Thus we were able to mitigate stress because they know assistance is available.”
With government set to cancel individual jeepney franchises by next year, I expect a resurgence of the silent pandemic of mental health issues among operators and drivers. Today, what offers optimism for them is that the social isolation imposed by COVID is over and workers can find hope in their collective actions. – Rappler.com
Benjamin Velasco is an Assistant Professor at the School of Labor and Industrial Relations of the University of Philippines Diliman. The research findings cited are from a case study conducted from 2021 to 2022 and commissioned by the International Transport Workers Federation.