Behind the handle bars

by: Nicole G. Amante, Alyssa Maryse G. Cruz, Raphael R. Dorado, Chrislee A. Javier, Jaia Gabrielle S. Labastilla, Maria Lourdes G. Lazaro, Caress L. Tolentino

Public transportation nowadays is mostly vehicles with gasoline-fueled engines, and we hardly notice that pedicabs exist.

This figure made from pieces of iron put together and complemented with seats and tires is dwarfed by the massive swell of jeepneys and buses. And people are not aware that behind the handle bars, and the accompanying side car, the pedicab drivers have stories to tell.

At Calamba City in Laguna, pedicab drivers maneuver their way in the middle of the busy road filled with countless automobiles. They try to keep up with the fast pace of cars, jeepneys and tricycles, using their strength as their capital. Back at the waiting station, whoever is left to wait for passengers hope that passers-by would need a ride, not mind the leisurely pace, and be generous enough to give the full fare and not make “tawad” since this amount, which many consider small, is essential for their survival.

This is how the typical day in the life of a pedicab driver goes. You think it’s easy? It’s not. Pedicab drivers trade the pleasure of sleep with waking up early in order to corner the market of early-risers who are mainly students. As early as five in the morning, the drivers are lined up in their station, ready to take their turns whenever a passenger drops or passes by.

Decades ago, pedicabs were boarded for entertainment and leisure purposes. They were usually seen in parks for foreign and local tourists to enjoy. But today, due to financial necessities, the poor and unskilled considered this an instant livelihood. This type of work is not new or novel or unique to Calamba City; almost every corner of the nation has its own version, especially in streets that are too narrow for buses and jeepneys. 

The stories they tell

In Barangay San Cristobal, Calamba City the pedicab is one of the more common sights aside from the tricycles. Here, they have an association for workers involved in the informal business of pedicab driving, which they call the San Cristobal Pedicab Operators and Drivers Association (SCPODA). With 750 members, composed of 400 drivers and 350 operators, the SCPODA is under the Kapisanan ng Pedicab Operators and Drivers Association, Inc. (KAPODA) which is the umbrella organization of all the unions of pedicab drivers and operators in Laguna.

The current SCPODA president, Joseph “Kuya Hapon” Banatin, 35, has been heading the association since 2009. He has been driving pedicabs since he was in elementary school, and he proudly narrates that this job even supported the expenses involved while taking up a vocational course. After graduating from the Dual Tech Training Center, he was able to get a job in an electronics company in Carmona, but eventually went back to pedicab driving when he started his own family. This he did not only to sustain his family and accompany his children to school, but also to return the favor that pedicab driving has given him.

Former SCPODA president, Juanito “Mang Junior” Salvador, 63, has been a pedicab driver for more than 30 years now. He used to be a plumber in Sta. Rosa, Laguna, but due to unstable income opportunities in the business, he lost his job and later became a pedicab driver. To this day, he still renders plumbing services to augment his income. At the current fare rate of seven pesos per head, he said he has a daily income of 300 pesos at the minimum. This means at least 42 passengers a day, which is surprising because he still manages to pedal his bike and service this number of people despite his age and slender body built.

Kuya Hapon and Mang Junior have some sort of education and skills which allow them to have other jobs given the opportunity. If they do not find pedaling for a living enough to sustain their family’s growing needs, they take on second jobs for earn extra income. But for many of their fellow pedicab drivers, this is not the case. Around 70-80% of the SCPODA members have low or no educational attainment at all, and they depend only on this job to sustain their needs.

Then there is the issue of boundary – the minimum amount the drivers have to remit to the pedicab owner. What little will be left is the only take-home income to budget for the family. With an average income of 150-300 pesos daily, drivers who do not own their pedicabs still need to give 50 pesos to the owner or operator. This they need to keep doing since buying a pedicab will cost them around P12,000-15,000.

Jon Haniola, 53, is lucky because he owns the pedicab he uses to earn a living. This means he doesn’t have to deal with the boundary requirement. Still, he maintains two jobs to put food on his family’s table and send his kids to school. HIs day starts at 4 o’clock in the morning, pedaling for a living for about 12 hours which gives him 300 to 350 pesos. But since he has two kids who are both studying in elementary this is not enough. He would then work as a carpenter and house painter in nearby project sites when there are available jobs, which means an additional 415 pesos. Although this second job is not as regular as the other, it makes Mang Jon happy. “It is really hard nowadays, even I earn 350 pesos a day with an additional 415 pesos sometimes, it’s not yet enough for food and other necessities of the family. I’m lucky enough that I have my own pedicab, I don’t have to pay for boundary,” says Mang Jon. (Mahirap na talaga panahon ngayon, kahit ba kumita ako ng 350 sa isang araw at paminsan minsan madadagdagan ng 415, minsan hindi pa din sapat yon pang kain at pambili ng mga kailangan ng pamilya ko. Swerte ko na nga lang at nakabili na ako ng pedicab ko at hindi ko na kailangan magbayad ng boundary.)

The bright and dark sides

While riding a bicycle is a form of exercise, it can be very tiring if done continuously, day in and day out. Just imagine having to drive two passengers at a time, with their luggage as additional weight. It would really stress out the muscles and joints of the legs. And what do pedicab drivers get in return? Very minimal income. While it is good for customers that the minimum pedicab fare is low, despite price hikes in consumer goods and services in the country, this spells a bit of hardship for the drivers because this means relatively low income for purchasing high-priced commodities.

Then, there also is the issue of health. Whole day exposure to the heat of the sun then getting drenched in rain may cause illness. Some drivers are also at risk of developing ulcers since they do not get to eat on time because they are either too busy with the service or trying to save some money, or both. The income of 150-300 pesos per day is hardly enough for the basic necessities of the day, taking into considerations the number of family members, so that they scrimp on some needs to stretch the money. Some consider it a lucky day if they get to take home that much. There are those who patiently wait all throughout the day and exert more effort pedaling more people to their destinations, and they get bigger income. Others, however, are not as patient, or maybe just don’t have the strength or endurance. Rainy days are more likely to invite more customers, giving them more opportunities for greater income.

Aside from the basic necessities of the day that the drivers try to provide with their earnings, they also save some a small amount for the Association’s projects and activities. One such project is the “Bigasan ng Kooperatiba” which all pedicab drivers are expected to support by way of contributions since this is a group business. Members also have to set aside five pesos as minimum monthly deposit, which the Association pools to prepare for health and other financial needs. If not used, this earns interest — the total deposit will be multiplied by ten and that would be the depositor’s money by the end of the year.  Pedicab drivers are thereby encouraged to increase their deposits for higher income by the end of year.

But while the concept is good, there are some who just want to continuously benefit without exerting effort. In the Bigasan project, for instance, some members keep buying on credit such that they Association misses some income opportunity. And while it is bad enough that they buy on credit, others keep postponing payments and forget to pay in the long run.

Pedicab drivers do not just worry about income; they also deal with bullies in their ranks. In their waiting station, pedicab drivers follow a certain sequence on who gets to drive costumers as they arrive. Some drivers complain that there are those who ignore the sequence and keep on getting passengers whenever they are back at the station, leaving the others to just watch and complain among themselves. The others, who are too weak or just not interested to pick a fight, do not react. These “sulakab” drivers, as how Kuya Hapon calls them, are the usual problems. That is why  the Association sends officers to check on the station and maintain order.

In times of illnesses when a pedicab driver cannot go out and earn for the day, there is no income, and this means no food on the table. The usual tactic is to borrow money. This is the reason why some parents encourage their children to drive pedicabs as well — to gain extra income. It is in recognition of this necessity that the Association has allowed 15-year-olds to drive pedicabs, the only basic requirement being knowledge in biking.

Given the limited income, other family members contribute time and energy in order to make ends meet. They may engage in the pedicab driving task, or look for other opportunities.

Anthony Cuello, 16, is the son of pedicab driver Celso Cuello. He said that although many people take pedicab drivers for granted, he still looks up to his father for his determination to maintain a decent living and lifestyle for both of them. He thus try to help in whatever way he can, especially after school hours. He studies at the nearby national high school and in the afternoon, he ventures out to seek income opportunities in hopes of helping out his father in making out their living.

“[I sell] anything that can be sold, as long as I can help,” (Kung ano matinda, basta makatulong lang) Anthony, who used to work as peanut vendor, said. He is also firm that while other people belittle his father’s job, he sees in it something large — a potential and a life in itself full of experience-based lessons that his father had taught him.

Celso can thus say that despite being just a pedicab driver did not hold him back from bringing up a good child.

Women in action

In the past, pedicabs were driven only by males, but now, even females have taken interest in this job. Two of them are Nelia de Juan, 54, and Jocelyn Belga, 48, who at their age, should be doing relatively lighter jobs or maybe staying at home but they are out in the streets instead, pedaling for income.

Neila and her husband have three children, Aiza, 21, Jason, 20, and Roy, 14. Her husband is an occasional construction worker earning 300 pesos per day. Given the instability of her husband’s job, Nelia offers pedicab rides services to elementary students. She has been in this job for three years now and through this kind of arrangement, she and her husband were able to send all their children to high school.

On the other hand, Jocelyn got into pedicab driving because her husband passed away in 2008, leaving her as the sole breadwinner of the family. She had to start finding a different way to earn money so that she could find a way to put food on the table, pay their bills and pay for her children’s education.

And they endure. Because they have to.

The pedicab driver is always present and ever steady, though many belittle their profession. They are actually one of the handiest people there is in our present society. Skilled with maneuvering the pedicab, they provide easy transport to those who are in need of it. For so long, pedicab drivers have experienced hardships, and these hardships are not easily handled without the help and support they get from their families and well-meaning workmates.

Pedicab drivers care not only for themselves, but for their passengers as well. They know the responsibility given to them whenever a passenger boards their pedicabs.“Your passenger is like your own child. You should take care of your passenger… I service elementary students. I always send them to school and vice versa. When it rains I carry them off my pedicab so that they won’t get wet and dirty. And I always make sure they are protected,” (Kasi yung pasahero eh parang anak mo na rin yan eh. Kaya ikaw ang may karapatang mag-alaga dyan kapag sumakay na yan sa iyo… Ako nagseservice ako ng mga bata. Hatid-sundo ko pa yan, pag nga naulan ay binubuhat ko pa, wag lang silang mabasa tsaka madumihan… Yung mga service ko eh talagang prinoprotektahan ko.) says Mang Junior.  He believes that good service to the customers establishes trust.

Kuya Hapon has this to say about his job and other people engaged in this activity for a living: “Not because we are pedicab drivers, we are low-class people. We are working decently; we do not beg for mercy, we do not steal.” (Hindi naman porket pedicab driver lang kami eh mababa na agad ang tingin sa’min. Kung baga ay marangal din naman ung trabaho namin kasi hindi naman kami nagmamakaawa na sumakay sa’min tsaka dito hindi kami nagnanakaw.)

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