Buencamino is a fellow of Action for Economic Reforms. This was published in the November 17, 2010 edition of the Business Mirror, page A6.

“The strong do what they can, the weak suffer what they must.” – Theucydides

Thousands of commuters were stranded, elementary and secondary school students missed class, and daily wage earners, including bus drivers and conductors, lost a day’s pay thanks to bus operators who did not like the MMDA’s number-coding scheme.

To be fair, legitimate bus operators felt they were being unfairly targeted. Arlene Camello of the Metro Manila Bus Operators Association said, “Before they concentrate on us, they should start with those who are operating illegally.”

She meant authorities should first get rid of colorum buses before they even think of number-coding everybody. But why does vehicle reduction have to be done sequentially, illegal buses first? Can we afford that luxury?

The Japan International Cooperation Agency did a study on the number of buses EDSA can carry per day. That number is 1,600. MMDA counts the daily number of buses on EDSA at 3,800, more or less. That means get rid of at least 1,000 buses a day. Now. MMDA and the bus operators can sort out the colorums later. Number coding is just aspirin anyway.

The main cause of traffic is not quantity but chaos, buses encroaching on lanes not meant for them. If buses followed the rules, you can have ten thousand buses plying EDSA and no one else will be inconvenienced. Unfortunately, we have the boundary system. It motivates bus drivers to do what they must in order to earn a little something. So boundary has to be replaced with something that does not encourage anarchy.

Rep. Teddy Casino proposed such an alternative. HB 3370 will require bus operators to pay bus drivers and conductors a fixed monthly salary. No more rat races for commissions.

“The difference here is drivers and conductors will get enough rest while operators will spend almost the same amount for salaries, thereby improving conditions in the industry. Operators will also gain as it will redound with the fierce competition on the road and will lessen accidents since drivers and conductors are better rested and have security of tenure,” Casino explained.

So there you are, better working conditions for drivers and conductors, less traffic jams, and safer roads. Everybody happy? Not really.

Alex Yague of the Provincial Bus Operators of the Philippines said they were for Casino’s bill as long as it is accompanied by reforms in franchising and fares. In other words, less franchises and higher fares first before they consider doing away with boundary.

“We are not totally against this bill because we also think that it is rational. Bus operators like us are even willing to help polish this legislation for the improvement of our employees’ working conditions but we will do so not at the expense of our operations.”

How does the bus operator’s bottom line change when a salary regime, according to Casino, costs the same as boundary?

Well, some bus operators make money not only from their legitimate operations but also from the kabit system and, almost all of them, from exploiting their drivers and conductors.

Casino’s bill will cause complications for the kabit system: who will carry the kabit drivers and conductors on their payroll, the kabit or the franchisee? And how will the kabit and his accomplice avoid detection?

As to drivers and conductors, boundary is fixed. How many roundtrips does a bus driver have to make before he starts earning something for himself and how many trips can he do on a bad day? But an operator never goes home empty-handed; every centavo before boundary belongs to him.

In addition, those who do not make boundary must share the cost of fuel with the operator. So not only do drivers and conductors go home with nothing on bad days, they also have to dig into their pockets. Drivers and conductors also carry the pay-offs to cops; and cops expect to be paid religiously. Most important of all, drivers and conductors do not enjoy full employee benefits under the boundary system. So things must change.

But bus operators are the kings of the road and they will run over anybody who stands in their way.