MANILA, Philippines — Jeff Gochangco, a 58-year-old jeepney driver and a father of four, became jobless when the series of lockdowns to contain the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 put a stop to public transportation.
Although he was allowed to pay only part of the P5,000 monthly rent as a relief from his landlord, his unpaid bill has now accumulated to P56,000 after nearly two years of the health crisis.
He was able to return to work after quarantine restrictions were eased, but Gochangco is worried about being evicted from their home as rising fuel prices have eroded his earnings to just P300 a day, or barely enough to feed his family and leaving nothing to settle his unpaid rent. This was a far cry from the P700 he made before the pandemic.
Such is the burden caused by the continued increase in petroleum prices among jeepney drivers, with their take-home earnings from their daily trips expected to continue shrinking.
“I’m worried that we’ll just get kicked out of our home anytime soon and for now, I am not filled with the hope of paying that balance anytime soon considering the earnings that I have,” Gochangco stressed.
With projections of prices rising in the coming weeks, Gochangco could not help but wonder if he could still take home at least P300, fearing that this might even fall to P250 or lower in the coming weeks.
Two senators on Tuesday called on the government to immediately release its subsidy for public transport workers, and increase and expand the coverage of the aid program to cushion the impact of skyrocketing fuel prices.
Sen. Sherwin Gatchalian, chair of the Senate committee on energy, proposed a 50-percent increase in the subsidy for public transport drivers and to expand the program to cover delivery service drivers.
The government should also immediately release fuel subsidies to farmers and fishermen, at the same time increasing the amount by 50 percent, and suspend the imposition of fuel taxes as a last resort, Gatchalian said.
Sen. Grace Poe, chair of the committee on public services, agreed that the government must “act with dispatch” in giving out aid to public utility vehicle (PUV) drivers as she expressed concern how rising prices of fuel have battered drivers and farmers daily for weeks now.
She expressed hope that Congress would support any move to increase funding for additional subsidies for drivers and farmers.
The government must match this with quick and decisive action to show that it could be relied on, Poe said.
The government will tap excess revenues for the additional P2.5 billion in fuel subsidies.
Undersecretary Rosemarie Edillon of the National Economic and Development Authority (Neda) told a Palace press briefing on Tuesday that the initial P2.5-billion fuel subsidy for drivers as well as P500 million in fuel discounts to farmers and fisherfolks were already part of the P5.02-trillion 2022 national budget.
The first tranche of PUV drivers’ fuel subsidy has yet to be released by the Department of Budget and Management pending the completion of documentary requirements from the Department of Transportation.
Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi on Tuesday said there was still no need to declare an economic emergency to address the looming energy crisis as several lawmakers had suggested, noting that the skyrocketing increase in fuel prices was a global issue beyond the control of the country.
“The government is doing everything. [But] I don’t think it is necessary at this point,” Cusi said at a press briefing when asked whether he supported calls for President Duterte to declare a state of economic emergency.
“Even when you declare an economic emergency, what do you do? Ganoon pa rin (It’s the same),” he added.
“When will the price hikes stop? We can’t tell. We are very dependent on the world market price because we are just a small importer. It is not only oil prices that will increase but even prices of fertilizers, food and even wheat. These are all projected to go up,” he said.
As of Tuesday, the price of Brent crude was at $127 a barrel, up 40 percent from the average rate last month.
Analysts said oil prices might hit $200 a barrel before March ends, which Cusi said could translate to local pump prices of up to P100 a liter.
WITH REPORTS FROM BEN O. DE VERA AND KARL R. OCAMPO