Unpaid wages lead Sichuan doctors to protest on window ledges

Local officials deny the protest was about unpaid wages, but observers say it is a mounting cross-industry crisis.
By Yitong Wu for RFA Cantonese
Unpaid wages lead Sichuan doctors to protest on window ledges In this screenshot from a video posted to social media Dec. 26, 2023, a crowd looks on as people in white coats straddle the window frames at Zhenjiang Temple Community Health Service Center in Suining city in China’s Sichuan province.

Authorities in the southwestern Chinese province of Sichuan have denied reports that a group of doctors clung to the outside of a hospital building this week in protest at unpaid wages.

A video clip posted to social media on Dec. 26 showed a number of people in white coats straddling upper-story window frames at the Zhenjiang Temple Community Health Service Center in Suining city, with comments that they were doctors protesting unpaid salaries. 

In the video, a large crowd looks on as fire and rescue services lay out large inflatables in case the doctors jump or fall from their perch.

The clip emerged as the Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin's Strike Map showed 995 industrial disputes linked to the keyword "wage arrears" since the start of October, describing the Suining medical staff’s action as "threatening to jump."

But the municipal government said the reports were inaccurate.

"The online claims that the medical staff were calling for their salaries to be paid are untrue," the Suining Municipal Health Commission said in a Dec. 26 statement.

However, it confirmed in a report aired by Guizhou Radio that the people in white coats were staff at the medical center, and said that "some medical staff are concerned about the transfer of management ... from Suining Traditional Chinese Medicine Hospital to local management."

"There have been objections," the statement said, adding that staff have returned to work.

Guizhou Radio later deleted the story, but syndicated copies were still visible on the Sina.com news site on Thursday.

Unpaid wages

A person familiar with the situation but who declined to be identified for safety reasons told Radio Free Asia that the protest was in fact about unpaid wages.

"It's true that they hadn't been paid," the person said. "Everyone is affected, including a lot of government departments, whose employees aren't getting paid."

"Some haven't been paid for the past couple of months, while others have been waiting six months," they said.

The person said the wage arrears are a nationwide and systemic issue, as local governments run out of cash.

"The machine has run out of fuel, and they can't pay anyone any more, and everyone is in despair," they said. "There is no motivation to work."

"This is definitely going to cause problems for the smooth running of the government."

Dissident commentator Ji Feng said the authorities are trying to play down the extent of the issue by deleting reports about protests over wage arrears.

"A lot of local government officials, police officers, teachers and doctors are owed wages right now," Ji said. "They used to praise the Chinese Communist Party and [Xi Jinping], back in the days when they got huge bonuses."

"It goes without saying that the economy is shrinking – the decline continues," he said.

He said the central government has taken over responsibility for some salaries "just to maintain stability."

Uncollected garbage 

Reports are already emerging on social media of uncollected garbage piling up in mounds.

In the southern city of Shantou, the local TV station reported on a backlog of trash building up in the Chencuohe residential community this week, because garbage collection teams weren't being paid.

According to the China Labour Bulletin, "the non-payment of wages is by far the most important single cause of labor disputes in China today, not just for laid-off workers but employees in many sectors of the economy where the payment of monthly wages is not guaranteed."

Around 80% of all the collective protests recorded on China Labour Bulletin’s Strike Map each year are related at least in part to wage arrears, it said.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie.


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