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Line up and shut up

Tacloban City—Residents are no longer queuing up for relief goods.

However, they still fall in line, for hours at a time, just to settle their bills.

Yes, ladies and lesbians, gays and gentlemen, eight months after struggling through the world’s strongest typhoon, Yolanda survivors are made to suffer for—pardon the pun—a fate worse than debt.

They have been forced to line up—and, to some degree, shut up—because agencies and utilities seem to have forgotten the welfare of the customers they presume to serve.

Take the arrangement at the Leyte Electric Cooperative (Leyeco) in Tacloban, which distributes power to several areas, including the city. On July 4, as early as 5:30 a.m., customers gathered at its offices to settle their bills.

They were the lucky ones. They were presumably able to complete their transactions quickly, as opposed to those who came later.

By the time Leyte Electric’s office opened, an estimated 1,000 customers swarmed its payment queues, with each given a numbered stub to mark their place in line. As of 10:30 a.m., only 520 customer bills were settled. This, however, did not discourage the others from arriving.

Half an hour later, the security personnel in charge of the queue issued a numbered stub to several clients, including a female customer who wanted to pay her bills as soon as possible. In receiving the stub, she agreed to be part of the second batch of customers—all of whom intended to settle their bills that day—even though there were 415 other customers ahead of her.

And that was just for the second batch of paying clients, excluded and separate from the previous 480 still waiting to be served. Customers came in droves because only a few knew that banks already accepted payments, a source familiar with the matter said.

But that’s just one aspect of the story.

UTILITY PROBLEMS

Leyte Electric had oversights. No thanks to an erratic billing system, it issued two different bills for two different periods—one covering the month of June—to its customers. As expected, Leyte Electric, supposedly a cooperative, vowed to rectify its billing issues and had asked its member-customers for patience and understanding.

Meanwhile, delays of a similar nature have also been reported at the Leyte Metropolitan Water District (LMWD), which, like Leyeco, serves the province and its capital. On days when most bills fall due, the LMWD’s office in Diit is packed with customers, much like passengers of Manila’s trains during rush hour. As a result, it takes customers anywhere from an hour to 90 minutes—sometimes even longer—to settle their water bills.

Unlike Leyte Electric’s queuing system, LMWD offers a far cruder arrangement, a throwback to the days before computers were invented.

LMWD customers intending to settle their dues are required to place their bills on a pile of other bills that came before them. To do so, they puncture their bills with a hole in the middle using a thick, upturned needle—an office item that is as antiquated and about as useful as a paperweight. Only after the bill is punctured are you considered part of the queue.

Owing to this archaic arrangement, customers who know people “on the inside” will most likely jump the queues ahead of poor slobs like myself with no such connections.

The archaic arrangement may be part of its organizational outlook. In a time of mobile banking and instant global fund transfers, the LMWD refuses to accept payments through banks. Why? Because it would incur fees by doing so, an employee said. However big or small, these fees are infinitesimal compared to the convenience it will allow its customers to enjoy.

Meanwhile, payments—in the form of voluntary member contributions—also pose a challenge for the Social Security System’s (SSS) office in Tacloban. The agency can conduct virtually any transaction on behalf of its members, as long as they are not remitting their contributions. If they are, members will be led to a hand-lettered poster indicating a list of banks that will accept their pension fund contributions.

This would have been helpful if the list was accurate. At least one bank on the list—the Development Bank of the Philippines (DBP)—no longer accepted SSS contributions. “We have never received SSS payments ever since I became an employee of the bank,” a DBP teller told me after I tried remitting my voluntary SSS contribution. “And I have been an employee for twelve years,” he said.

It took two separate trips to two different banks before I was able to conduct a transaction as simple as remitting my SSS contributions. (The first bank, the Bank of the Philippine Islands, told me to come back the next day because it ran out of receipts for member contributions. Thankfully, Metrobank agreed to accept my pension fund remittance without any fuss.)

However anecdotal, I learned all this information about payment queues while staying in Tacloban. It would have been nice to receive fair warning or advanced notice. But then again, that’s just me. After all, Tacloban residents have not been scandalized by these inefficiencies. Or at least not yet.

They remain busy getting on with their post-Yolanda lives or, for that matter, have become such experts at falling in line that they no longer bother raising an outcry about spending several hours in a queue.

Which probably explains why—and how—they survived the aftermath of the world’s strongest typhoon.

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