Tue, Oct 29, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Workers face low pay, high risks and gangsters in Fukushima

Concern has been raised over the safety of workers exposed to the highly radioactive environment at the crippled nuclear power plant and of gangster-related groups skimming workers’ wages

By Antoni Slodkowski and Mari Saito  /  Reuters, IWAKI, Japan

Illustration: yusha

Tetsuya Hayashi went to Fukushima to take a job at ground zero of the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. He lasted less than two weeks.

Hayashi, 41, says he was recruited for a job monitoring the radiation exposure of workers leaving the wrecked Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in summer last year. Instead, when he turned up for work, he was handed off through a web of contractors and assigned, to his surprise, to one of Fukushima’s hottest radiation zones.

He was told he would have to wear an oxygen tank and a double-layer protective suit. Even then, his handlers told him, the radiation would be so high it could burn through his annual exposure limit in just under an hour.

“I felt cheated and entrapped,” Hayashi said. “I had not agreed to any of this.”

When Hayashi took his grievances to a firm on the next rung up the ladder of Fukushima contractors, he said he was fired. He filed a complaint, but has not received any response from labor regulators for more than a year. All the eight companies involved, including embattled plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO), declined to comment or could not be reached for comment on his case.

Out of work, Hayashi found a second job at Fukushima, this time building a concrete base for tanks to hold spent fuel rods. His new employer skimmed almost a third of his wages — about US$1,500 a month — and paid him the rest in cash in brown paper envelopes, he said.

Reuters reviewed documents related to Hayashi’s complaint, including pay envelopes and bank statements.

Hayashi’s hard times are not unusual in the estimated US$150 billion effort to dismantle the Fukushima Dai-ichi reactors and clean up the neighboring areas, a Reuters examination found.

In reviewing Fukushima working conditions, Reuters interviewed more than 80 workers, employers and officials involved in the unprecedented nuclear cleanup. A common complaint: the project’s dependence on a sprawling and little scrutinized network of subcontractors — many of them inexperienced with nuclear work and some of them, police say, have ties to organized crime.

TEPCO sits atop a pyramid of subcontractors that can run to seven or more layers and includes construction giants such as Kajima Corp and Obayashi Corp in the first tier. The embattled firm remains in charge of the work to dismantle the damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi reactors, a government-subsidized job expected to take 30 years or more.

Outside the plant, Japan’s “Big Four” construction companies — Kajima, Obayashi, Shimizu Corp and Taisei Corp — oversee hundreds of small firms working on government-funded contracts to remove radioactive dirt and debris from nearby villages and farms so evacuees can return home.

TEPCO says it has been unable to monitor subcontractors fully, but has taken steps to limit worker abuses and curb the involvement of organized crime.

“We sign contracts with companies based on the cost needed to carry out a task,” said Masayuki Ono, a general manager for nuclear power at TEPCO. “The companies then hire their own employees taking into account our contract. It’s very difficult for us to go in and check their contracts.”

The unprecedented nuclear cleanup both inside and outside the plant faces a deepening shortage of workers. There are about 25 percent more openings than applicants for jobs in Fukushima Prefecture, government data show.

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