“Proudly Philippines,” says jeepney maker Don Salvaleon, nodding towards the country’s flag stuck on one of the vehicles in his workshop in Rizal province, about two hours southeast of central Manila.

While the vehicles fill a gaping hole in public transport left unaddressed by the government, Filipinos have a love-hate relationship with them. A jeepney ride starts at nine pesos in cities and eight pesos in provinces, with each able to carry about 13 passengers, though the colourfully decorated vehicles usually pack more people in.

The jeepney is so strongly tied to Philippine culture, a model of one is virtually the first thing people see when stepping off the plane at the airport.

Yet President Rodrigo Duterte is preparing to run jeepneys off the road permanently, pushing a plan to replace them with more expensive minibuses.

Two years ago when authorities launched the plan, there was a huge outcry on social media, with Filipinos supporting resistant drivers and operators, pointing out they would struggle to afford new vehicles.

“The immediate effect [of the phase out] is the massacre of livelihoods of an estimated 250,000 small jeepney operators and almost 600,000 jeepney drivers,” says George San Mateo, head of Piston, the union for jeepney drivers and operators.

“In terms of [government] support, very minuscule, very puny. The new vehicles cost around 1.6-1.8 million pesos (US$30,000-US$34,000) per unit, compared to the current jeepneys, which cost 400,000-500,000 pesos. The government brags it will shoulder the down payment, which is around 80,000 pesos and the rest it is up to the jeepney driver and operator to pay the banks.”

Jeepney users have mixed feelings about the phase out. While they all recognise the vital role they play, there are concerns about possible fare increases and a lack of government support as the vehicles are replaced. “It’s unfortunate [for] drivers if they don’t have any jeepney to ride, because this is where there money comes from,” said one.

Salvaleon has been assembling jeepneys for 10 years and driving them even longer. He worries about losing his business if he cannot afford to upgrade his fleet.

“This president is an enemy to everybody,” he says. “They are imposing excise tax which is about 200,000 pesos per unit … Why do they single out [jeepneys]? Because we are not big companies, we are single proprietors; they have enough power to squash one person, one operator.”

The government now is blaming the drivers for the pollution. I say ‘you blame Marcos’
George San Mateo, union leader

The normally open-backed machines are cast as rebels of the roads: blaring music, spewing fumes, picking up and dropping off wherever they want. They play by their own rules. Virtually no two jeepneys are identical, due to their customised artwork and interiors. Even old jeepneys that look the same appear to be rotting in different places. But they are now in the corporate cross hairs and appear destined to be monetised and sanitised for mass consumption.

“Now because of strict government policy, you see many jeepneys have no artistic [designs] any more because [of] lots of government policies,” San Mateo says. “So the drivers and the operators, instead of putting art in their jeepneys say: ‘Oh just paint it red’.”

The government claims jeepneys need to go because they are old, dirty and unsafe. A study by the Japanese International Cooperation Agency found 80 per cent of pollution in Metro Manila comes from the street but San Mateo points out “jeepneys are only 2 per cent of total registered vehicles”. Most are private cars, he explains, and their numbers are rapidly expanding.

Until the 1970s, jeepneys ran on petrol. The Opec crisis led to a spike in fuel prices that sparked a strike by drivers that lasted for days.

San Mateo says then-president Ferdinand Marcos asked Japan to dump old and surplus diesel engines on the Philippines, since diesel was half the price of petrol “to soften the anger of the drivers”.

“And the government now is blaming the drivers for the pollution,” he says. “I say ‘you blame Marcos’.”

San Mateo has also led strikes, which have brought the country to a standstill and made him a public enemy of Duterte.

“The government charged me, had me arrested, filed a case against me, for leading a nationwide jeepney strike … twice,” he says.

Piston may take more industrial action before the mid-March deadline for jeepney operators to upgrade their vehicles.

“A nationally coordinated transport strike remains as the principal option of Piston in fighting the jeepney phase out and the Duterte government’s bogus and big business modernisation,” San Mateo says.