Why make the poor pay for public transport?
Where do nearly 1.3 million Filipinos—an estimated 90 percent of whom earn less than P15,000 monthly—go when they take the MRT and LRT daily?
The vast majority take the train and other forms of public transport to go to offices, factories, malls, construction sites, etc. In short: to work. Others take the train to go to the market to buy basic necessities, to visit their families, to do business in government offices, etc. In short: to reproduce themselves—by seeing to their various needs—as workers so they can keep going to work.
What do Filipinos do when they go to work? They provide the ability (or the labor power) to manufacture goods, construct buildings, or staff restaurants or shops. In so doing, they create, through their labor power, value or wealth, and it is from this value that is derived the profits made by those who own the factories or shops (i.e., the capitalists) and the taxes that the government extracts from both workers and capitalists.
Those who doubt this should simply imagine what would happen if all workers refuse to go to work: No wealth, no profits, no taxes would be produced.
Public transport like the MRT or LRT should therefore be considered an essential part of production, or of the social or collective way by which wealth is produced in our society—just as machines, factories, offices, etc. are an essential part of production.
Consequently, the cost of constructing, operating and maintaining this component of production should be considered a cost of production—just as everything else used for production, and for which part of capital is used, is considered a cost of production.
But if public transport is an essential part of production and its upkeep and operation are a cost of production, then a basic question faced by all cities or countries is: Who should pay for it?
This question is best answered by another question: Who should pay for the machines, buildings, labor power, and other elements necessary for production? Answer: Who else but those who profit from production?
And yet today, and for decades now, it is in effect the workers themselves who have been and are being forced to shoulder this cost of production. It constitutes a massive, unaccounted, but possibly multibillion-peso subsidy or dole to capitalists because every peso that they don’t have to spend for this cost of production is a peso that goes to their pockets as profit.
Thus, contrary to the discourse peddled by government officials and much of the media, it is the rich who are actually being given “handouts” by the workers because they are effectively giving the rich money they could otherwise use to buy a kilo of rice or books for their kids.
And it is the rich, not Manila’s working classes, who are actually taking away the classrooms, roads and other services that should have long gone to the poor in Mindanao but which, according to our elites—trying to divide the working poor, as usual—are being sacrificed for Manila’s “privileged” commuters.
One may argue that capitalists are already paying for public transport as a cost of production in the wages they pay their workers. But, to begin with, all workers are paid much less than the value they produce for capitalists. Moreover, as government statistics show, wages in the Philippines are far less than the actual amount needed for workers to lead decent lives. To tell workers that P50-P100 of their daily wage is meant for public transport is to tell them to forego lunch, or their children’s education.
One may argue that capitalists are already paying for public transport through the taxes on their profits. But, to begin with, these profits—and therefore these taxes—were produced by workers themselves, so any government spending on public transport was also in effect extracted from the workers.
In addition, the government has also largely privatized “public” transport, having in effect turned it over to the richest families to be run as a moneymaking enterprise rather than as a public service.
Indeed, the story of how the government contracted the building and operation of the MRT to the Sobrepeñas, Ayalas, etc. is yet another sordid tale of how our ruling elites have connived to use state monopoly power to milk more out of the poor by building a cheap, poorly-designed, badly-maintained, extremely-crowded violent and dangerous public transport system that the masses have to endure and pay for, like a daily form of public torture, if they are to earn the pittance they need to survive.
And now they’re even imposing a fare increase of 50-90 percent, not even to pay for repairs but to further increase the returns to families who have earned so much from this extortion.
We workers say: Enough is enough! We demand an immediate stop to these subsidies to the rich, and for the rich to actually pay for public transport so as to make it a “free” public service—“free” in the sense that we workers should no longer be asked to pay for something we have paid for by producing society’s wealth.
We demand that the onerous contracts between the government and the private sector be immediately rescinded and all those responsible for them be prosecuted.
But all these—the fact that capital is able to make workers shoulder the costs of production, the fact that the government repeatedly connives with capital to prioritize private gains over public service—are a predictable outcome in a society where those who never take the train, because they are chauffeured to work in luxury vehicles, hold the economic and political power.
If we are to have the safe, dignified public transport and other public services we deserve, we need to fight for something bigger: a society in which those who take the train are also the ones who hold power.
Leody de Guzman is the president of Bukluran ng Manggagawang Pilipino, a national organization of labor unions and other workers’ groups.
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