No Transport Strike, Just A Protest Caravan

MANILA, Philippines - It will be a protest caravan, not a transport strike, that a group of jeepney operators and drivers will hold Thursday in Metro Manila to denounce the unabated increase in fuel prices.

Transportation Secretary Manuel Roxas II said Wednesday the Pag-kakaisa ng mga Samahan ng Tsuper at Opereytor Nationwide (Piston) and its allies gave the assurance that they do not intend to paralyze public transport and strand thousands of commuters.

"There is no transport strike or boycott. Our operators said they will only have a protest caravan wherein they can air their views on the Oil Law and Value-Added Tax (VAT) on petroleum products," Roxas said in a radio interview.

Piston is calling on the government to once again regulate the oil industry to prevent overpricing and cartelization, and a temporary suspension of the VAT on petroleum products to bring prices down to affordable rates.

Roxas said the government "is doing all that it can to mitigate the effects of oil price increases (in the transport sector) but the (our operators and drivers should know that) this increase in prices is due to the political instability in the Middle East," he said.

Roxas, who supported the suspension of the 12 percent VAT on oil products when he was a senator in 2007, said the present cost of oil in the world market is not compelling enough to warrant the tax's suspension.

"What is important is that whatever fund that government generates from the VAT is being used appropriately and in a corrupt-free and transparent way," he said.

Piston President George San Mateo said its members and supportesr will not go on strike but several of them will picket the head office of Chevron Philippines along Ayala Avenu in Makati City.

Piston is also calling for a R1 fare increase for jeepneys, and the investigation of big oil companies for overpricing.

San Mateo said similar protest actions will be held by the group in Isabela, Baguio City, Laguna, Bicol, Panay, Cebu, Dumaguete City, Bacolod City, Caraga Region, Cagayan de Oro City, General Santos City, and Davao City.

Another major transport group, the Pangkalahatang Sanggunian Manila Suburbs Drivers Association (Pasang Masda), said it will not take to the streets but will waiting for the decision of the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) on its petition for a 50-centavo provisional fare hike.

LTFRB Chairman Jaime Jacob said the board will postpone the resolution of the jeepney operators' petition and will hold a final consultation with the petitioners before finally issuing its decision.

On the eve of Piston's protest caravan, the Department of Energy (DoE) said Pantawid Pasada card-carrying jeepney drivers with plate numbers ending in "2" can avail themselves of the second tranche of the government's fuel subsidy program.

D0E Oil Industry Management Bureau Chief Zenaida Monsada said beginning last Tuesday, the eligible card holders can now present their cards at accredited gas stations around the country and fill up with R1,200 worth of fuel.

Monsada said the D0E began reloading the Pantawid Pasada cards with R1,200 credits last February 29, beginning with drivers of Public Utility Jeeps (PUJs) whose plate numbers end in "0".

Last March 6, the cardholders of jeeps with license plates ending in "1" were reloaded.

The DoE said it would soon announce the corresponding reloading schedule of other beneficiaries, that is, with plate numbers ending in 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9.

Monsada said at least 10,000 recipients per set or 100,000 Pantawid Pasada cardholders in total will benefit from the P1,200 aid.

The fuel subsidy program was revisited this year amid the continued rise of petroleum product prices, brought about in large part by the tension in the oil-rich Middle East, particularly over Iran's nuclear program.

Monsada also said Pilipinas Shell, Petron Corp., and Chevron Philippines (formerly Caltex)-collectively known as the "Big Three"-have assured the DoE that they will not raise pump prices this week.

"Their commitment to us is that they won't raise gasoline and diesel prices this week," she said.

Fuel prices have been increased five times in as many weeks. A total of nine price increases have been enforced this year, as opposed to only two price rollbacks.

Operators or drivers who harm or harass drivers and the riding public Thursday face cancellation of their franchises, Presidential Spokesman Edwin Lacierda said Wednesday.

"We hope those who will participate in the transport strike will not cause harm to the public or threaten or prevent them from going about their daily business," Lacierda said during a Palace news conference. "If you do participate, you will have to face the consequences if any untoward incident happens." (Additional reports by Carlo Suerte Felipe and Genalyn D. Kabiling)