Asia's Toughest Jobs: The toil of a smiling jeepney driver

Asia's Toughest Jobs: The toil of a smiling jeepney driver

Driving a jeepney, a bus-like vehicle, on Manila’s roads day after day is a physical and mental challenge. Jack Board meets a man who, despite the long hours, low pay and time away from home, keeps smiling for the sake of his family.

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Jonathon Refil is constantly smiling despite the hardships he faces as a jeepney driver in the Philippines. (Photo: Jack Board)

MANILA: When Jonathon Refil pulls his jeepney into the same dark gas station every night, cuts the engine and pulls out a piece of cardboard to sleep on, he has only one thing on his mind.

His family.

They are far away from him most nights. Far away from the choking roads of the city and the exhausting schedule he endures to provide for them.

The 32-year-old is one of tens of thousands of drivers responsible for taking a colourful, archaic vehicle around perpetually jammed metro Manila, transporting people to work or school and back home again.

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Refil normally spends 19 hours a day on the road, a gruelling schedule. (Photo: Jack Board)


Despite being an essential cog in the movement of the city, plying these streets in the heavy, polluting jeepneys is a largely thankless job. The 1,000 pesos (US$20) he takes home each day after working up to 20 hours reflect just that.

“My schedule every day is start at 4am and finish at 11pm. I sleep for four hours and then start work again at 4am. That’s how it goes on a day-to-day basis,” Refil said.

“I have no substitute driver for my shift so I can only go home to my family on Fridays. I have to work.

“There are times when I can’t see them because sometimes I have to fix my jeepney, even on Fridays. It’s really a sacrifice. I miss my daughter. I don’t see her often. I just think that I need to save up for her future,” he added.

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Jeepneys are an essential public transport provider across the Philippines. (Photo: Jack Board)


Propped up in the driver’s seat, Refil cuts a surprisingly sanguine figure as he wrestles his jeepney though the traffic quagmire. It is physical work and sweat forms on his brow as his feet pump the pedals.

A crucifix on a chain swings loosely in front, silhouetted by the late morning sun pushing its heat into the cabin. A coin tray where his earnings slowly accumulate has the words "God is Love" painted in thick black font, a common expression of faith in this devout nation.

But reward here comes through pure toil. Refil has the rough hands to show for his efforts, yet carries with him a gentle demeanour that might be lost on someone else less patient.

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Passengers cram into the back of a jeepney for trips across metro Manila. (Photo: Jack Board)


The smile on his face – almost unbroken throughout much of his shift – belies the gruelling tedium of his days.

“Some passengers say that I often smile. I think I can make them happy that way,” he said.

“I just think of my family. If I think of the exhaustion and the lack of sleep, I will just feel weak. I just smile all of the time – it helps ease the exhaustion.

“You feel tired all over. You use all your body parts – hands, feet, mouth, ears. There are times when you will get sick especially because of the bad weather. But you just have to carry on.”

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Many drivers are forced to sleep in their vehicles as travelling to their homes takes too long. (Photo: Jack Board)


The Philippine jeepney sector is aggressively competitive, often dangerous for drivers and passengers alike and a long-time target for reform.

Transport authorities in 2016 announced the phasing out of older jeepney models in an attempt to begin the modernisation of metro Manila’s public transport system.

The grand plan will be to have a fleet of electric vehicles providing safer, cleaner and more efficient transport for millions of commuters daily. But it has been met with protests from jeepney operators, who appear to have successfully slowed down that process.

They argue that the changes would only benefit large corporations and ensure the death of small business.

Noisy protests have tested the Duterte government’s ability to introduce legislation to help improve the traffic crisis. While there has been recognition of the need to ease congestion, the process of practical measures to achieve it has been slow to roll out.

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Refil needs to queue for passengers for his route from Guadelupe to Makati (Photo: Jack Board)


The gridlock is slowly choking the city. Already it is estimated that more than US$60 million is squandered every day due to lost productivity. Air pollution, much of it caused by the 70,000 jeepneys in the city, is worsening.

It is the drivers themselves that feel the effects of their fast-ageing vehicles and Refil, unlike many of his fellow drivers, is looking forward to a transport system that is cleaner and safer.

But in the wake of uncertainty around the sector, he acknowledged that others have shifted to ride sharing platforms like Uber instead, for the comfort and earning opportunities. 

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Refil's coin box where he aims to accumulate 1,000 pesos each day. (Photo: Jack Board)


It is not a road he is considering taking. Once more, it is a family connection that ties him to the wheel.

“I tried to apply for other jobs before but it didn’t work so I accompanied my father in his work. He was also a jeepney driver. I learned from him,” Refil said.

“My father was a good driver. I wanted to be like him. When I was still a child I would also go with my father while he was working. I enjoyed those moments - I would hold the tray where he put the money.

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Refil says he is inspired by his father, who drove to provide for their family. (Photo: Jack Board)


“I saw how my father was able to provide for our family. He was able to send us to school. He became my inspiration.”

Refil’s father has since stopped driving due to medical concerns and the family jeepney baton has been passed down a generation.

As he pulls up the bonnet of his heaving steed after an unbroken six-hour stint taking passengers up and down the same four kilometre route, he pauses to inspect the engine with diligence. Much relies on him keeping things running, for now and into the future.

"I cannot leave this profession now,” he said. “This is where I started. This is what I see myself doing until I get old.”

Source: CNA/jb

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