Keep on truckin’

FAS Maritime Magazine | Maiden Issue
Photography by Arabella Paner

Amidst a daunting modernization program, fuel price hikes, and turnaround delays, the men behind this humble but mighty industry forge on

From bananas to bicycles to beer, consumption levels are breaking records. Even amidst inflationary pressures, figures from the World Bank point to private consumption being among the Philippines’ main economic drivers, having grown at a moderate 7.3 percent in 2017 and contributing 10.3 percent (or $31.3 billion) to the same year’s GDP. This, a steadily growing economy, and the exponential rise of e-commerce in the country—payment solutions firm PayPal predicts Filipinos will be spending P121 billion on online shopping in 2018—mean more goods are waiting to be moved.

As the Philippines is lightyears away from self-driving trucks, the country needs more men like Misae Cagubgub hauling freight and making deliveries.

The 44-year-old has been working as a driver since 2001. Initially, Cagubcub, a licensed inspector, drove to kill time and earn while waiting for his application to the Philippine National Police’s lateral entry program; when that did not pan out, he got into the truck driving business in 2002.

Kumpara sa iba kong skills, pinipiliko ang pagdrive. Dahil habang kumikita ka nang disenteng pamumuhay, nakakapasyal ka pa [Out of my other skills, I chose to drive. You get to go around the country while earning a decent living],” he shares. Truck driving has brought the Cagayanon all around the Philippines and even as far as Saudi Arabia, where he drove the 1,000-kilometer Riyadh-to-Jeddah desert route for over a year. But the urge to return home proved strong; these days, Cagubgub finds himself among the long-haul truck drivers plying Manila’s increasingly congested expressways, delivering goods to places as far as Ilocos, Isabela, Romblon, Marinduque, and Bicol.

Dito sa Manila, ang kalaban mo lang naman kasi traffic. Nakaka-delay pero bigyan mo ng dalawang oras at makakalabas ka na sa probinsya. Sa Saudi, ang kalaban ko pagod. Malalayo ang biyahe ng mga kompanya—daily, back and forth na1,000 kilometersbawat trabaho. Mas obligado ka pa dahil kung walang biyahe, wala kang pandagdag sa basic mo [Traffic is the only enemy here in Manila—there are delays, but give it two hours and you’re already crossing provincial road. In Saudi Arabia, my enemy was exhaustion. Deliveries there covered long distances—I had to drive 1,000 kilometers back and forth for a job order. And you’re obligated to do it, otherwise you won’t earn anything on top of the basic salary],”he shares.   

Cagubgub now works for leading trucking service provider Acro Distribution Network, Inc., where he counts himself among the company’s veteran drivers. Founder Alfredo Tumacder III relates Cagubcub has been with him since 2008, the year Acro began its humble operations in a truck yard located on land leased by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) in Barangay Cupang, Muntinlupa, and that his role in the company has expanded. “Misae’s been my driver, body guard, mechanic, trainer, and really a role model for the rest of my drivers. Never nasiraan ‘yan ng truck [He’s never had a truck break down],” affirms Tumacder. “We put a primer on safety and security here, and we continuously train our drivers. But without people like Misae whom they can relate and see firsthand the benefits of taking care of themselves and their trucks, building a culture rooted on safety would be challenging.”

Apparently, good truck drivers are hard to come by these days. Tumacder, whose business has grown from one truck to a fleet of 140, finds that, on average, only one out of three drivers trained in a month is retained. “We have a CSR program where we train our existing truck helpers who want to be drivers. We subsidize their training and apprenticeship salary—it’s a financial risk for us because not all those guys pass our requirements,” he says.

As if to cement his boss’ point, Cagubcub gestures toward a younger driver sauntering out of Acro’s newly renovated head office. “Pinakamaraming aksidente ‘yan—mahilig kasi mabilis magpatakbo [That guy’s had the most accidents here—he likes to drive fast],” he says, surmising his fellow driver probably came from a disciplinary meeting with his dispatch officer. “Swerte nga kami dito kay boss dahil hindi naniningil pag may aksidente—lahat kasi ng trucks may insurance.Sa ibang kumpanya, pag nakasagi ka ng kotse, sagot mo [We’re lucky here because our boss doesn’t charge us for damages—all his trucks are insured. In some companies, when a driver hits a car, that comes out of his pocket],” he says. 

Cagubgub and his fellow drivers at Acro are indeed luckier than most. With its fleet of 140 vehicles spread across four truck yards in Metro Manila—the one in Barangay Cupang, Muntinlupa is massive at 1.5 hectares, with barracks and a canteen provided for idle drivers and helpers to rest during Manila’s 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. truck ban—Acro counts itself among the minority of corporate-run trucking firms with fleets that number more than the industry average. “Most of the trucking sector—70 percent—are truck owners with three to five units. Bigger companies with more than 50 vehicles comprise about 20 to 30 percent,” informs Atty. Ryan Esponilla, general manager of the Confederation of Truckers Association of the Philippines (CTAP).
Industry upheaval

According to Esponilla, it’s the smaller trucking firms who bear the full brunt of the current pains plaguing the trucking industry, the foremost of which being the government’s truck modernization program. Drafted under the premise of road safety and preservation of the environment, the Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) issued a memorandum circular mandating an age imposition to trucks: Only those less than 15 years old can secure the CPC (Certificate of Public Convenience) required for it to operate.

In the Philippines, it’s been common practice for truckers—bigger providers like Acro, included—to buy second-hand surplus trucks in Subic. These vehicles, usually right-hand drives manufactured in Japan, are converted for local use and while often already a decade old, perform as well as brand new ones from China and Europe (which cost an exorbitant P3.5- to P5 million) when well-maintained.

This is precisely why CTAP and its 15-member organizations are pushing for the LTFRB to issue CPCs based on a truck’s road worthiness instead of year model. “It doesn’t necessarily follow that newer trucks are safer than old ones. If they’re not properly maintained, they can cause more damage than older trucks that are well-kept,” says Esponilla.

“We understand the policy is designed to increase the competitiveness of Philippine truckers, to make us at par with ASEAN neighbors,” affirms Esponilla, but the problem with such policy is “abrupt implementation” will not only cripple the average truck owner, but the industry itself. “We’re going to have a shortage of logistics providers here in the Philippines, because around 80 percent of the country’s existing trucks-for-hire are already more than 15 years old, and for majority of truckers, the value of the truck they would have to dispose won’t be enough to cover buying a newer unit,” points out Esponilla.

CTAP is urging the government to revive their Motor Vehicle Inspection Service (MVIS) program, and put up MVIS machines nationwide to determine trucks’ road worthiness. “There should be one MVIS in every region. Ang kinakatakot namin ay pag hindi maput-up ang MVIS two years from now, magiging edad talaga ang basehan [We’re concerned that if they don’t put up MVIS in two years, they’ll use age as the requirement for the CPC],” says Esponilla.

Adding to the trucking industry’s headaches are Codes 12-2 and 12-3 of Republic Act No. 8794 or the Anti Truck Overloading Policy of the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH), which sets the maximum allowable gross vehicle weight (MGVW) for trucks and trailers at 41,500 kgs and 42,000 kgs respectively. According to CTAP President Mario Yap, the law, while designed to protect the early deterioration and damage of government roads, as well as uphold road safety of drivers and other users, failed to consider the average weight of containers arriving in the Philippines.

“Containers weigh around 30,000 to 36,000 kgs—if you add the minimum weight to the tare weight of the tractor head and trailer itself, which on average is around 16,000 kgs, you’d get a total of 43,500 kgs. That’s an automatic violation of the law. If the DPWH implements the law without amending the MGVW, then 80 percent of container cargoes stockpiled at the Port of Manila could no longer be transported, putting to naught the government’s effort to facilitate a seamless and sustainable mobility of container cargoes at the Port,” states Yap in a position paper submitted by CTAP to DPWH Secretary Mark Villar.

CTAP, apart from pushing for amending the MGVW under Code 12-2 from 41,500 to 53,500 kgs, and Code 12-3 from 42,000 to 54,000 kgs, also pointed out the need to weigh cargo within port premises. “Para pag overloaded, hindi na pwedeng ilabas [If it’s overloaded, then it won’t be allowed to leave],” says Esponilla. It’s an area where corruption is rampant, he laments. “Some just pay a fee when overloaded, and they’re good to go. This just waters down the essence of the law, which is to protect roads from overloading.”

Bottleneck pains

According to the Japan International Cooperation Agency, worsening traffic conditions in Metro Manila is now costing the Philippines P3.5 billion in lost opportunities per day. Nowhere is this felt more than in the country’s trucking industry where business success is largely dependent on the swift turnaround of vehicles.

Truck turnaround today, according to CTAP, averages two to three days, covering the pickup and delivery of goods, and the return of empty containers. Delay in the latter is exacerbating congestion and has even prompted truckers to stop accepting and delivering cargoes from four international shipping lines.

The root of the problem, states Esponilla, has been largely due to shipping lines designating container yards located close to the Port of Manila, most of which are brimming in overcapacity. “What ends up happening is that trucks who come to these container yards to return empty containers end up being diverted to yards outside of Metro Manila, which costs truckers not only money but wasted time,” points out Esponilla.

It goes without saying that when these problems fester, the toll it takes on the health and well-being of drivers like Cagubgub can be great.

With Manila’s truck ban still strictly enforced—cargo trucks loaded with perishable and agricultural cargo, as well as trucks registered under the port’s Terminal Appointment Booking System (TABS), are exempt—the earliest a truck can pick up a container from the port is at 9 p.m. “Pag11 p.m. ang bookingko sa pier, tanghali pa lang papunta na kami. Dun na kami aabang sa holding area for four to five hours kasi pag nahuli kami, ibibigay ng brokerang karga mo sa ibang truck [If our booking at the pier is at 11 p.m., we’re already headed there as early as noon. We stay in the holding area for four to five hours because when we’re late, the broker would give away your cargo to another truck that’s already there],” relates Cagubgub.

A job order for Tarlac would mean Cagubgub and two truck helpers unload their cargo at around 1 a.m., rest from 3 a.m. to 5 a.m. and be on the road again to return their containers. “Sobrang puyat at pagod dahil gabi ka tatakbo, tapos pag balik mo araw na, at maghihintay ka ulit ng karga [It can be quite draining—you leave at night, and it’s already a new day when you come back, and then you wait again for the next cargo], he shares, adding that it’s the same pattern the rest of the week, with Saturday 11 p.m. to Sunday 3 p.m. comprising his rest hours.

Lingguhan lang talaga ang uwi—pwede naman araw-araw pero mauubos oras mo at dahil nagmamahal na ang bilihin, ang gastos mo lalaki pa. Kaya usually dito na kami sa barracks sa yarda [Most of us go home only once a week—we can go home every day, but the commute eats up our time and, with the price of goods rising, our expenses will balloon. So most of us just opt to stay in the barracks here at the yard],” relates Cagubgub.

Trucking in the age of Dutertenomics 

The trucking sector gives mixed reviews when it comes to political transitions in the Philippines.

Tumacder, who founded Acro Distribution Network, Inc. at the height of the global financial crisis in 2008, saw his business aggressively expand in the term of former President Benigno Aquino III, when foreign direct investments had come in droves and economic zones in the country were abuzz with activity. “I was investing in a truck every month during that time, at P1 million a truck, because growth was sustainable. Ang tapang ko nun [I was very confident]—I told our landlord that I was taking over the whole facility here in Muntinlupa, build a nice office and cement the entire 1.5 hectares,” relates Tumacder.

These days, because of current developments like the TRAIN Law, which caused a spike in fuel costs, Tumacder admits he is “holding off on investments and focusing our efforts into developing our systems—streamlining the business, developing the mindset of our people, culture change. When everything stabilizes and the landscape improves, that’s the time I’ll invest again.”

Tumacder concedes, however, that with President Duterte’s Build, Build, Build program, it’s a “great time to be buying dump trucks because construction is booming.”

With the Philippines entering what political analysts are saying to be the country’s “golden age of infrastructure,” CTAP’s 15 member associations remain bullish about the trucking industry’s future—present pains notwithstanding. “In terms of facilities, once infrastructure projects of the government are completed, congestion will hopefully be minimized, which only spells better business for our truckers,” relates Esponilla, adding that the good thing about the current government is that “unlike PNOY’s time, it’s easier to talk to government about our concerns—at napapakinggan talaga kami[and they really listen].”

With such big-ticket infrastructure as the SLEX-NLEX Connector Road Project currently ongoing, truckers are keen on talking to government about allotting a single lane exclusive to trucks 24/7. This is on the premise that the current truck ban isn’t really helping alleviate congestion problems. “Sure, there are no trucks on the road during these hours, but the moment the ban is lifted, there’s congestion. Our solution is a single designated lane for trucks—we’ll even take the innermost lane basta takbo lang nang takbo [as long as we’re running all day long],” says Esponilla.

More than anything, Esponilla shares that CTAP’s vision is for the public to change their perceptions when they see trucks plying the road. “Dito sa Pilipinas, tuwing nakakakita ng truck, nakikita nila mga nagpapa-traffic [Here in the Philippines, when people see trucks, they see the cause of traffic],” he observes. “But in places like Japan, or any Asian country for that matter, when people see trucks, tuwang tuwa ang mga tao dahil ang trucks are indicators nagumagalaw ang ekonomiya [they feel joy because trucks are indicators that the economy is moving].”

Mababa ang tingin ng mga tao sa aming mga [People look down on us]truck drivers,” says Cagubgub. “Pero kung wala kami, walang magpapatakbo ng transportasyon na nagdadala ng mga kailangan nila pang araw-araw, tulad ng asukal. Bilang driver, hindi kami nagrereklamo. Basta araw-araw may biyahe, kahit anong ruta, basta kumikita. Biyahe lang nang biyahe. [But without us, nobody’s going to run the transportation that will bring things they need on a daily basis, like sugar. We drivers are not a complaining lot—as long as we’re driving every day, regardless of the route, and earning a decent living.