Amid the pandemic, grit and hope are the driving force for this bus driver & conductor to survive


Arturo Patio, Jr. has been working for 10 years as a bus conductor at one of the largest provincial bus company in Northern Luzon.

He wakes up daily at 4 in the morning, and he has a standard and consistent morning routine with his family. After sitting down for breakfast with his wife and two kids, he gets ready for work, then takes a long walk towards the highway to catch a ride with one of their buses to save on transport expenses. He is currently plying the Iba to Olongapo route.

When he gets to the terminal, it’s time to get down to do the work for the day. Before each and every trip between Iba and Olongapo in Zambales, he makes sure to run a thorough check of his assigned bus – from checking the cleanliness of the bus and each passenger seats to make sure everything is in order. He knows this is important for the comfort and safety of many passengers he will be greeting for the day. He then reports to the terminal cashier to get his bus tickets that he will be using for the day.

“Bilang isang konduktor, marami po akong nakakasalamuha na iba-ibang tao. Masaya po ang ganitong gawain! Nalilibang po ako at kumikita, [As a conductor, I meet people from various walks of life. I enjoy what I do and earn a living from it.]” Patio says with a smile. “Pagkatapos ng mga gawain at biyahe, umuuwi akong may dalang pagkain at pasalubong para sa aking pamilya, [At the end of each day, I am able to earn and provide for my family, and even buy my children treats].”

After each and every trip, he then tallies the used tickets and his fare collection to be remitted in the Olongapo terminal. Arturo and his bus driver usually makes 4 to 5 trips a day.

This routine may sound repetitive and tiring, but for Arturo, greeting and serving passengers with the same cheerful demeanor and making sure they’re brought safely to their destinations is a way of life that he doesn’t mind living on the daily. It puts food on the table, after all.

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From his 8:15 PM trip originating from a bus terminal in Cubao, Quezon City, Angel Mendones expertly navigates the long and winding road to Baguio City.

He traverses the route – seemingly dangerous to the unfamiliar and the untrained – with ease. He can do this because he received proper training on defensive driving, and thru familiarity with the road.

Depending on the traffic condition, Angel usually arrives in Baguio at 12 midnight, after driving for 4 hours. After arriving, he checks his bus again, before going to sleep at their designated barracks beside the terminal.

He then wakes up at 6 AM for the 8:10 AM trip back to Cubao. Before every trip, he always make sure to do his routine vehicle inspection, as he knows how crucial it is for his safety, and the safety of everyone on board his vehicle. His pre-departure inspection includes a BLOWBAG check (which stands for battery, lights, oil, water, brakes, air, and gas), and a bus wash to make sure it is pristine and clean.

Before joining the bus company, Angel is a former truck driver who usually manned trailer and ten-wheeler trucks, bringing produce and other goods in Northern Luzon. He already gained the necessary experience to become a bus driver.

To be able to bring home a paycheck to sustain his family, even if he’s not always around to see them because of his trip schedule, is Angel’s driving force is to serve passengers by bringing them to and from Baguio City in comfort and safety. After years of plying the Cubao-Baguio route, it has become second-nature to him.

But the coronavirus pandemic abruptly changed everything for Arturo, Angel, and thousands of employees in the bus industry.

The national government implemented a Luzon-wide community quarantine measures on March 16 with hope of curbing the spread of the virus. This left the streets deserted, aside from a few essential travelers. The transport and travel industry, once a major contributor to the country’s economic growth, is the first to take massive losses, endangering the livelihoods of thousands of Filipinos working in the hospitality, food, cultural, sports and recreation, travel services, and transportation sector.

With the gradual easing of the community quarantine measures, public transport is still limited and commuters endure long queues and waiting time due to reduced capacity in buses, jeepneys and trains.

In a statement made by the Provincial Bus Operators Association of the Philippines, around 14,000 workers face an uncertain future as drivers, conductors are retrenched or put on forced leaves. Many breadwinners like Arturo and Angel feel more pressured to sustain their household as varying degrees of lockdowns are in place.

“Nalulungkot ako at nai-stress po, kasi iniisip ko kung paano maitatawid ang aking pamilya at masuportahan sa pang araw-araw na gastusin [I’m saddened and stressed out thinking how I’ll be able to survive my family and support our daily needs],” Arturo says somberly.

Fortunately, their employer continuously support the well-being of its employees in the same manner that they care for their passengers.

“Malaking pagbabago po ang naging epekto ng COVID-19 gaya ng kawalan ng suporta sa pang araw-araw na gastusin sa bahay. Mabuti na lang at hindi naman po pinapabayaan ng ating kumpanya na laging may tulong na maaasahan [COVID-19 brought about big changes in our everyday lives, especially in our finances. We are thankful that our company extends to us much-needed assistance],” Angel attests. He describes their employer as “very caring, responsible, and always treats us like their own family” and “always on our side in these times of crisis.”

Despite their limited operations, Victory Liner generously distributed food subsidy, (sacks of rice and grocery items) as well as extending a monthly loan amount of PHP 5,000.00 to all their employees to help them get by. Early on, the company also made sure that all their staff would be safely shuttled to their respective provinces, to avoid being locked down in NCR. The management continues to keep their lines open for questions and updates from their employees.

The company also assisted them with the necessary paperwork in order to receive PHP 5,000.00 from the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) under the COVID-19 Adjustment Measures Program (CAMP). Relief goods also made their way from their corresponding local government units.

It sounds more than it seems, but transportation employees like Arturo and Angel know that these cash subsidy is not a sustainable or long-term solution to the current situation as it will not be able to match up to the consistent monthly income. The cash subsidy could barely cover their food expenses for more than a few months – let alone rent, electricity, water, and other essentials.

Uncertain with the new normal brought by the pandemic, the challenge for everyday subsistence is on top of their mind knowing that the government subsidy is not enough and they need to find another way to earn.

And so with grit, diligence, and lots of hope, these transport employees use their work experience and training to stay afloat. The company equips its operations and management staff through a comprehensive training program that includes defensive driving and customer service courses, among others. These have proved useful in the pursuit of a ‘negosyo’ to help provide for their families.

Arturo has taken to selling seafood (fish and squid), then went on to get a job as a helper in a hardware store. He earns at least PHP 300.00 daily for selling his goods.

Last June 4, with the limited resumption of trips for Olongapo to Sta. Cruz, Zambales, Arturo was chosen as one of the bus conductors to man the limited fleet.

Angel, for his part, makes a living as a cargo porter at the company’s Dagupan terminal, carrying boxes and other cargo that are destined to other terminals in Metro Manila and Northern Luzon. It’s a far cry from the bus driving he is used to for years, but he puts in long hours of hard labor only to put food on the table for his family.

They keep in touch with their fellow drivers and bus conductors, checking on how they’re doing in the usual spirit of ‘kumustahan’, as if they had just come from a trip. It’s the one thing that feels normal. According to them, their other driver colleagues also use their driving skills to make a living elsewhere, while some stewardesses are on-board buses and on-duty again. Those who couldn’t find jobs continue to rely on the emergency loan offered by the company.

Despite the different directions that their lives have taken, Arturo, Angel, and their colleagues miss being on the road, giving public service to their daily passengers. They see their roles as bus driver and conductor as a meaningful driving force to the local economy by providing a way for people and businesses to move places.

Despite the uncertainty, they have the most fervent hope as they look forward to being one of the friendly faces to welcome the thousands of people back on board again, who rely on them daily for safe transport in this ‘new normal’.


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Gabriel

Introvert, wanderer, blogger, foodie, a hip-hop music writer, and one of the co-founders of a tech start-up company called GigsManila.