Are MRT/LRT riders ‘freeloaders’ or ‘parasites’?

Herbert Docena
Workers across the country produce enough wealth to improve public transport in Metro Manila and public services in the provinces – but much of this wealth is being grabbed by the country’s elites, not by workers



For several years now, around 1.3 million MRT/LRT commuters have been enduring the daily violence of our mass transport system – violence so routine it has become unrecognizable as violence.

Today, they’re being hit with yet another one-two punch: Not only are they being forced to surrender as much as P1,000 or more of their monthly incomes to go to work, they are also being slandered and vilified, portrayed as the “favored offspring,” or as “freeloaders” and “parasites” greedily snatching resources from their less-favored siblings in the provinces.

As with most narratives, there is a grain of truth beneath this framing: millions of Filipinos living in the provinces have indeed been deprived of government resources for decades. But this grievance is being mobilized to propagate a larger fallacy: that it is MRT/LRT riders – or “Metro Manilans” in general – who are grabbing those resources from them.

Are MRT/LRT riders really the ones depriving people in the Visayas or Mindanao their fair share?

Unconditional cash transfers

Let’s start with who’s going to get all that money from the MRT fare hikes: Transportation Secretary Joseph Emilio Abaya has publicly admitted – but the President and other commentators conveniently fail to note – that the additional revenues from the fare increase will actually be funnelled to the few dozen individuals who hold securities or claims to the revenue stream of the MRT Corporation, the Ayala-Sobrepena-plus consortium formed to build and run the MRT.

This is because the Ramos government – in yet another of the scores of “sweetheart” deals that the Aquino administration refuses to rescind – guaranteed the Sobrepeñas and all those who ended up owning MRT Corporation securities that, no matter what the conditions, the state will ensure that they will collectively get an estimated US $2.4 billion dollars – a 15% return on investment – over 25 years even if they only shelled out US $190 million of their “own” capital, while the government borrowed the remaining $500 million needed, to build the MRT.

How else might we think of this as anything other than a multibillion peso dole not to all Metro Manilans but to particular Metro Manilans (or particular Metro Cebuanos, maybe even New Yorkers or Londoners) who hold MRT Corporation securities? What else could this be but a kind of “unconditional cash transfer” to a handful of individuals living in particular enclaves in Metro Manila – or in Park Avenue or Kensington?

But this hundred-billion subsidy to particular families is actually only the tip of the iceberg. Public handouts to the mighty – the opposite of the so-called “trickle-down” effect promised by economists but mocked by Pope Francis – do not all come in the form of onerous deals.

The gushing-up effect

Think of the hundreds of billions that have spent on highways, ports, and other infrastructure in Metro Manila and across the country that primarily help the real estate, the mining projects, and the other business ventures of the Sys, the Ayalas, the Pangilinans, and other investors collectively.

Or think, even more generally, of the hundreds of billions spent on “public goods” that appear to benefit only the lower classes but which, sociologists and geographers have pointed out, actually end up largely as subsidies not just to particular capitalists or sectors, but to the entire capitalist class.

This observation now seems counter-intuitive, but imagine, for example, if we had no public transport system at all. How could firms ensure that their workers get to work and produce profits for them? Wouldn’t each firm have to set aside capital to buy its own fleet of buses or to give its workers extra money to ride private buses to work because, otherwise, workers would not be able to come to work and produce profits?

Imagine there were no public schools: Each capitalist would have to spend part of his profits either running his own school to teach workers reading, writing, and other competencies needed for them to do their work – or topping-up their wages for them to go to private schools.

Every single peso that capitalists “save” from not having to pay for their own fleet of buses or their own schools either because the state – using tax revenues extracted from wealth produced by workers – provides these services for them, or because they have succeeded in forcing workers to directly absorb these “costs of reproducing labor” by keeping down wages – adds up to a massive, uncalculated but no less real subsidy from workers to the bourgeoisie: a class composed of a few thousand individuals living in posh Dasmariñas Village and other enclaves in the rest of the country and abroad.

They – not MRT/LRT riders or “Metro Manilans” in general – are the real “favored offspring.”

Why, then, do officials and some pro-government economists living in Dasmariñas Village insist on maligning MRT/LRT riders when the amount trickling down to the MRT/LRT pales in comparison with the amounts gushing up to business and industry? Why do they direct so much scorn on MRT/LRT riders – who are supposedly “non-poor” anyway since most earn more than the official “poverty threshold” of around P2,000/month per capita – while staying mum about their “non-poor” neighbors and the fabulous dole-outs they get from the state?

(Dasmariñas Village residents who really believe only those who earn less than around P2,000/month are “poor” ought to be challenged to live on P2,500/month, or even P15,000/month, then asked if they’d consider themselves “nonpoor” after even just one month).

Pitting the lower classes against each other

Now echoed by many ordinary citizens, this attack on the commuting class should be seen in the context of the longstanding efforts by our elite to achieve and reproduce hegemony by deploying what sociologists call the “symbolic violence” of the state. This refers to the power to make people see their “selves” in terms other than class (as “Metro Manilans” or as “Cebuanos”), see the social world as divided along non-class lines (between “Metro Manilans” or “Cebuanos” or between “poor” or “non-poor” rather than between capitalists and workers or between the propertied and the property-less), perceive these divisions in terms of mere difference rather than antagonism, and therefore see their interests as being in harmony with the interests of the exploiting classes.

In plainer terms: using their power to shape people’s “common sense” in the hope that they will see their exploiters not just as actual or potential “partners” but also as worthy leaders, promoting everyone’s interests and not just their own.

Our elites’ ability to make people see the world in these terms, however, has long been hobbled by their unwillingness to grant material concessions to subordinate groups and their inability to see the collective interest in promoting public services such as public transport (i.e. for easing traffic, improving productivity, and fighting climate change).

Unable to rally people behind a positive vision that promotes universal interests, they could only rely on the hoary strategy of pitting the dominated against each other, mobilizing the grievances of Cebuano workers or Ilocano farmers and setting up Manileño workers as their enemy, so as to make us turn against each other and prevent us from coming together.

This explains this tack of focusing on the alleged taking of resources by the so-called “non-poor” MRT/LRT rider from the “real poor” while obscuring the hulking share of resources seized by the bourgeoisie: an attempt to goad slaves to keep fighting each other for a larger share of the scrapsthat fall off the master’s table.

Paradoxically, this attempt to pit us against each other seems to be succeeding in part because of the elite’s very success in eroding public services that don’t directly benefit them: Forced to fend for themselves to pay for school, health care, transport, etc., more individuals belonging to the middle and lower classes feel more alone and insecure than ever, more convinced that they’re moving up (or at least not falling down) onlybecause of their own hard work, and even more bitterly resentful of any scraps thrown at others. Neoliberalism breeds more support for neoliberalism.

Towards a different station

But where will this dog-eat-dog, every-man-for-himself, Cebuanos-versus-Manilenos “common sense” promoted by our elites take us if not a future in which the poorest stay unemployed in the barrios or the slums, the employed push and elbow each other in decaying, suffocating trains, while even the rich remain stuck, unmoved and unmoving in their shiny Porsches? In short: to a society no less, or even more, immobile and vicious than what we have today.

There is another destination.

As shown by those rising luxury condos and palatial mansion that greet us as we emerge from the bowels of Ayala or Buendia station, by the ballooning net worths of the Forbes’ Richest Filipino Families, and by their expanding fleet of private jets and Hummers, Filipino workers in the country and abroad are producing more than enough wealth to provide not just quality, dignified and free public transport system for all in Metro Manila but also quality, dignified and free public services for all even in the provinces—free not because workers are poor and pitiful and therefore deserving of the charity of the rich, but free because we have already paid for them with our blood, sweat, and tears.

But, as workers’ groups like the Bukluran ng Manggagawang Pilipino have rightly pointed out, we’re not going to get this for as long as those who do not produce wealth, they who never take the train or buses, are the ones holding power. We can only get it when those of us who do take the train are also the ones who decide where our society is going. –

Herbert Villalon Docena is a sociologist by profession.

Add a comment

Sort by

There are no comments yet. Add your comment to start the conversation.