Coke Bottle by Coke Bottle, a Roadside Industry Keeps Drivers Refreshed

Manila | 08/08/2013 10:50am
Purple Romero | Informal City Dialogues

For Manila motorists, roadside fuel businesses provide a convenience that gas stations can’t.

The bottle’s curve and logo are instantly familiar to consumers all over the world – you can imagine the taste of what’s inside as soon as you see them. But this bottle doesn’t contain Coca-Cola. The inky dark liquid inside is gasoline, sold by a retail oil seller named Eddie outside his home. Gray-haired and gaunt at 64, he fills soft-drink bottles with gas and sells them to passing motorists. Eddie’s house in Balara, Quezon City is located along a route used by those who are driving to the University of the Philippines and other nearby establishments, giving him a steady flow of customers.

Judging by the number of motorcycles and tricycles that stopped by his house on a recent Sunday afternoon, business is booming. He can hardly finish his lunch as a customer pulls up almost every 10 minutes, looking for a fill-up.

“I’ve been doing this for 10 years,” he told me. And though he has a little friendly competition from the house across the street, where his neighbor sells exactly the same product, this – along with a small store from which he sells food – provides him enough income to live on.

His prices are similar to what you’d find at the Petron, Shell and Chevron gas stations, where a liter of unleaded gas sells for P55 to P58, or $1.26 to $1.33 USD. Sometimes Eddie’s product is even more expensive by about six cents per liter. But customers like Jamir said they prefer to buy from sellers like Eddie because the nearest gasoline station is 20 minutes away. “By the time I get there, my gas is gone,” said Jamir, for whom one liter of gasoline is enough to get him through his workday delivering food to the university.

Eddie’s wife attends to a customer.

A few pesos saved is a big deal for people like Jamir, who, because of his job, bears the brunt of rising gasoline prices. Oil corporations increase their prices almost on a weekly basis, citing volatile international prices as the cause.

Public utility vehicle drivers have protested against what they say is the wanton jacking up of oil prices, and transport groups have asked the Department of Justice to investigate oil companies for alleged overpricing. But the government has pretty much got its hands tied by Republic Act 8479, otherwise known as the Oil Deregulation law which gives oil corporations complete control over the prices of their products. As oil prices increase, so does the price of food. Only a stable inflation rate for food cushioned the impact of soaring oil prices to the public in June, the National Economic and Development Authority said.

This continuous uptick in oil prices has given Eddie and other vendors like him a good source of income, however. Eddie earns a minimum of $6 a day. He also sells half-liters and gives discounts to loyal clients. (“I won’t tell you how much,” he said.) His day starts at 5 a.m., when he buys 50 to 70 liters of fuel from the nearest gas station. The bottles he gets from a junk shop for two cents apiece. By 7 a.m. he’s open for business, and he works till 11 in the evening. The bottles of gasoline are stacked on a plastic stand. His wife helps him sell them throughout the day.

JM with his product.

Across the street, his competitor, JM, is only 17 years old. JM, whose thin frame belies the fact that he’s used to hard labor, has been selling fuel in bottles for less than a month. Before this he dabbled in construction in his province of Masbate. He doesn’t get to keep all the profits, however – he works for the owner of the store and gets paid $34 a month.

He has to keep as tight watch on his items, as they have been losing one or two bottles of gasoline a day. He suspects children in the village have been stealing them. “We lose some money because of that,” he said, his black eyes showing frustration.

JM has to check that all 24 bottles of diesel and premium gas – some in Coke bottles, others in wine bottles – are still in their containers. On a good day, he can sell as much as $92 worth of gasoline. He’s not daunted by the presence of Eddie – there are plenty of cars to go around. “I don’t see a problem with having lots of sellers,” he said. “There are many others like us along the street.”

The Department of Energy has ordered the shutdown of retail fuel stations like Eddie’s and JM’s, charging that they rob formal gas stations of income. It also considers them a health hazard. But JM insists they provide an important service to Manila’s drivers. “Imagine if a car passing by this street suddenly stops moving because it has no more gasoline,” he said. “It will get towed. There’s no nearby gasoline station. With us here, they can just easily buy the fuel they need.”