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Low-carbon transition in PH’s RE hub brings stability to solar plant workers, but hardship to jeepney drivers

Passenger jeepneys with cramped interiors that cough out dark fumes are familiar sights in the streets of Bacolod, Negros Occidental. With affordable fares, jeepneys have been the choice transport of commuters for decades.

But soon, roads of the city will be filled with modern jeepneys that will replace the old units that have been blamed for traffic congestion and air pollution.

Three modern jeeps, which look more like mini buses, began serving passengers via the Homesite-Central Market route in Bacolod following the launch of the public utility vehicle modernization program in the city on June 29.

The program aims to replace aging jeepneys with newer and bigger models powered by a cleaner Euro-4 engine. On September 12, additional units of the modernized vehicles started plying the Bata-Libertad and the Alijis-downtown routes.

As the sugar bowl of the Philippines begins its transition to a greener transport system, drivers and operators of older jeepney models face a bitter reality. One of them is July Baldeclona, who has been driving a traditional jeepney that he borrowed from his brother for almost a decade.

The 53-year-old driver is not in favor of the modernization program at this time simply because the new models cost millions that they cannot afford, even if they work every day for the next 20 years. It will be a never ending cycle of debt for him especially amid the skyrocketing oil prices and the current health crisis.

“There’s nothing wrong with modernization for as long as our nation is ready,” he said in Hiligaynon. He fears the possible nationwide phaseout of traditional jeepneys will lead to many people going hungry and losing their jobs.

Baldeclona also said that the government should be equipped before the commencement of the transition. Even the subsidies they receive have been infrequent in recent months, he added.
A just transition ensures that a shift to a greener economy does not neglect the welfare of the people and does not violate their rights.

The PUV modernization program is a double-edged sword as it aims to reduce planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions from the transport sector but puts the PUV drivers and operators at risk of losing their jobs.

FEAR OF UNCERTAIN

It has long been known that stressful work environments can have a negative effect on mental health. How much more when you lose your bread and butter, especially during a health crisis?
Clinical psychologist Joeanne Jomalesa said that jeepney modernization may affect drivers in a lot of ways. One would be the fear of unemployment.
Jomalesa said that job insecurity can lead to feelings of distress. Such mental anguish can result in anxiety and depression.

“This is more so because most PUV drivers are breadwinners. The fear of the uncertain such as: will they be able to have the capacity to buy e-vehicles and many more. How they can provide for their families can really cause distress,” she said.

She also mentioned that specific mental health issues can trigger a deeper kind of mental health condition especially if an individual has existing predispositions.

JOB SECURITY
The Negros island is leading the Philippines in the shift to renewable energy.

In 2019, Alfredo Marañon Jr., governor of the Negros Occidental at the time, signed the executive order keeping coal out of the Negros Occidental province and promoting the use of clean renewable energy. To date, there are 15 RE plants in the whole province. Seven of them are biomass plants and the remaining eight are solar power plants, according to the Department of Energy.

The ambition of Negros Occidental to become the country’s RE hub is seen to provide the province with enough energy supply and yield more job opportunities for residents.

One of the recipients is Darlene Gamboa, a supervisor at Helios Solar Energy Inc, in Cadiz, Negros Occidental. The solar plant is considered to be the largest in Southeast Asia upon its commissioning.

Gamboa, who grew up in Manila and got married to a Negrosanon, started as a rank-and-file employee during the early years of the solar farm construction.

Through her efforts, she landed a higher position in the plant despite not finishing tertiary education, which, according to her, helped her kids finish school.

Gamboa said the solar company does not only help her financially but also provides her knowledge and skills through training and seminars. The plant also prioritizes the safety and security of employees—two of the many things that Darlene is grateful for.

“Regarding sa mga benefits kumpleto sila lahat ng dapat ibigay sa empleyado benefits ay kanilang pinagkakaloob, kaya naman ganado at my ngiti ang bawat employee na nagtratrabaho (They provide all the benefits that should be given to the employees. That’s why every employee who works there is happy),” she added.

“[On] mental health, obviously we’re in good hands. So nagpapasalamat ako nang malaking malaki sa company dahil nandyan sila para sa mga needed financial, spiritual, emotional support. ‘Yung tipong kahit big boss sila hinding hindi ka mahihiyang lumapit (So I am very grateful to the company because of the needed financial, spiritual, and emotional support. We’re not shy to approach even the big bosses), ” Gamboa said.

There are around 75 employees in the solar power plant.

SUPPORT FOR AFFECTED WORKERS
Science has made it clear: low-carbon transitions are essential elements in the fight against climate change. But those shifts may cause loss and hardships if the impacts of such changes are not managed well.

In the case of drivers and operators of traditional jeepneys, there should be at least five years of transition starting from consolidation to the switch to the new unit, National Confederation of Transport Unions (NCTU-SENTRO) representative Jaime Aguilar said.

The first two years should be allotted to consolidation. The third year should focus on the development of knowledge and skills of transport workers to smoothen the transition.

Aguilar stressed that modernization is not merely changing the units, but also overhauling and elevating the transport system while making sure that all sectors involved will not be hampered.

Joshua Villalobos, an environmental activist from Bacolod City, said the transportation system should be improved through a gradual and comprehensive modernization that will not only focus on drivers but also operators, and workers in vulcanizing and transport repair shops.

“When you look at modernization, we shouldn’t just look at the driver and the vehicle but the entire industry involved,” Villalobos said.

Support from their families and the government can help workers affected by low-carbon transitions, Jomalesa, the psychologist, said. Immediate psychosocial interventions for emergency cases such as psychological first aid can be also of help for those needing support.

“It is through awareness campaigns, spearheaded by the government, that will reduce the unwanted feelings of distress of PUV drivers. The campaigns may tackle on educating the population affected on why there is a need to shift to renewable energy,” Jomalesa said.

She added that a “pulong-pulong” session or a gathering where all sectors affected will be given a chance to be heard is also suggested.

“The thought of making them feel that there is support from the government to assist them to shift to a greater cause can lessen their anxiety and will give them a sense of security.”*

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