Silent pandemic: Mental health issues among informal transport workers in the Philippines

Workers in the informal transportation sector in the Philippines faced an upsurge in mental health issues due to increased economic precarity during the COVID-19 lockdown

December 18, 2023 by Benjamin Velasco
Students of the University of the Philippines Diliman and other protesters express solidarity with the striking jeepney drivers, Quezon City, March 6, 2023. Photo: Wikimedia

Militant jeepney groups are launching transport strikes during the holiday season which is on the heels of a similar protest last month. They are demanding the suspension of the December 31, 2023 deadline affirmed by President Bong Bong Marcos, Jr. for jeepneys to be consolidated into fleets organized as cooperatives or corporations. Further, they are questioning the public utility vehicle modernization scheme itself.

Jeepneys which are redesigned US Army military jeeps from the Second World War, are both a national symbol and the dominant mode of public transport in the Philippines. Though regulated by the government through franchises, informal working arrangements link jeepney owners called “operators” to drivers who work on a commission basis. With low barriers to entry and an average ownership of just 1.3 vehicles, operators are also working poor and often drive their jeepneys on some days of the week. The controversial modernization scheme—which was rationalized as mitigation of both the climate and traffic crisis—has been met by transport strikes since it was authorized in 2017 under former President Rodrigo Duterte.

The resistance to jeepney modernization spotlights the economic difficulties faced by informal transport workers since the pandemic. Meanwhile, little attention is paid to the mental health problems of jeepney drivers and operators. Mental health is far too often seen merely as a concern of younger workers and not considered an issue for baby boomers and Gen Xers, the demographic of most jeepney workers.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, these informal transport workers experienced a silent pandemic of mental health issues. This, as was found in a case study by this author about operators and drivers amidst COVID-19, was sparked by widespread loss of income and livelihood as a result of lockdowns and the uncertainty created by the jeepney modernization plan.

Lockdown exacerbates existing precarity

To recall, the COVID quarantines instituted in the Philippines banned all forms of public transport. Only after two and half months, with the loosening of the lockdowns, were some types of public transport, excluding jeepneys, were allowed. It took more than three months before the first modern (not traditional) jeepneys organized in fleets were allowed to drive through the streets and only those which complied with the regulations. Later, routes operated by traditional jeepneys slowly went back into service as the country got out of the pandemic.

These extreme economic difficulties were the catalyst for the mental health issues of jeepney operators and drivers. The extent of the humanitarian crisis experienced in particular by informal jeepney workers was expressed by them begging for food or alms at the height of the lockdowns.

In interviews conducted with jeepney transport leaders and mobility advocates, there was a consensus that the extended loss of livelihood during the pandemic was an important cause of mental health problems of informal jeepney workers.

Rarely acknowledged by the jeepney drivers themselves, the symptoms of mental health problems were expressed in various forms. One is extreme sadness, if not outright depression. Second: incidents of anger at family members and friends. Third: low self-esteem at the loss of “breadwinner” status. Finally, inability to adapt and function normally in a situation of lack of income and the uncertainty of regaining livelihood due to the jeepney modernization plan.

A female jeepney operator described the situation like this: “During the pandemic, mental health and stress of jeepney drivers and operators became a cause for concern. They couldn’t drive. They had no livelihood. They had no boundary. Also they were afraid of getting COVID-19. So you get stressed. When you go out to drive, you don’t know if you will get exposed. But if you don’t go out then you will die of hunger.”

She added, “It was really stressful. These were stories that our members told us. Although they did not know that it was already mental stress. They did not have an awareness of mental health issues. They were always saddled with problems. Of course when we are confronted with problems, we get stressed. But they did not realize it was already a mental health issue.”

Economic distress provokes social instability

Most jeepney operators and drivers worked full-time and thus were considered as the breadwinners of their families. Their working hours were more than the normal working day of eight hours so, as a result, they usually had little contact with their children. Their spouses bore the burden of maintaining the family even as their wives may have their own paid work in the informal economy. Thus, the identity, status and role of many jeepney operators and drivers were tied to their economic role as income-earners in the family. But the loss of their jobs during the pandemic shattered this “normality” and led to mental anguish.

Jeepney drivers and operators who were forced to stay at home during the pandemic lockdown often had difficulty finding new roles to play in the households since this had traditionally been their spouses’ role. Much of the drivers’ sense of community had also been tied up with camaraderie among fellow jeepney workers in their informal garages, such as by playing basketball, but this form of socialization was not an option due to the lockdown.

One advocate who happened to be the child of a jeepney driver, stated that “Our transport workers will not admit that they have depression. I don’t think they are able to identify it. Sadness and the range of emotions associated with it is not something they communicate openly. Our transport workers take pride in their hard work and ability to provide for their families. When that is taken away from them, they feel worthless and usually respond to the situation by lashing out to the people they love. After the display of anger, they’re usually apologetic but not because of their emotions. They constantly say sorry to their families for not being able to give enough.”

Most jeepney drivers and operators had been working in the sector for the better part of their lives and thus would encounter serious difficulties looking for a new job. This is also due to the fact that they are informal and low-skilled workers who have had little educational experience. Transitioning to a new job in ordinary conditions would already be difficult, but was even more challenging during the pandemic.

The jeepney drivers who had not yet settled down in the cities and were recent migrants from the provinces were in an even worse situation. Many who were not able to leave the cities in time to go back to the provinces had to temporarily use their jeepneys as lodging spaces. For the extended period of the lockdown, they lived in their jeepneys but without an income to sustain themselves.

The study found that jeepney associations did not have any direct intervention for its members at the level of diagnosing and treating mental health issues. This was initially due to their own lack of awareness of it as a problem. And even when they became cognizant, organizations had limited financial resources to organize direct medical responses.

Still, the campaign of jeepney groups to mitigate the impact of the pandemic and the modernization plan indirectly responded to the mental health issues of operators and drivers. One jeepney leader said that “Actually we had no programs such as counseling that specifically cater to mental health issues. But we contributed to alleviating the anxiety of jeepney drivers and operators by assisting them in their problems…Thus we were able to mitigate some stress because they know assistance is available.”

With the government set to cancel individual jeepney franchises by next year, one can expect to see a resurgence of the silent pandemic of mental health issues among operators and drivers. Today, what offers optimism for them is that the social isolation imposed by COVID is over and workers can find hope in their collective actions.

Benjamin Velasco teaches at the School of Labor and Industrial Relations of the University of Philippines Diliman and is a member of Partido Manggagawa (Labor Party-Philippines). The research findings cited are from a case study conducted from 2021 to 2022 and commissioned by the International Transport Workers Federation.