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

Raising wages could draw more workers, but that has not happened, the data show. TEPCO is under pressure to post a profit in the fiscal year ending in March under a turnaround plan Japan’s top banks recently financed with US$5.9 billion in new loans and refinancing. In 2011, in the wake of the disaster, TEPCO cut pay for its own workers by 20 percent.

With wages flat and workers scarce, labor brokers have stepped into the gap, recruiting people whose lives have reached a dead end or who have trouble finding a job outside the disaster zone.

The result has been a proliferation of small firms — many unregistered. About 800 companies are active inside the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant and hundreds more are working in the decontamination effort outside its gates, according to TEPCO and documents reviewed by Reuters.

TEPCO, Asia’s largest listed power utility, had long enjoyed close ties to regulators and lax government oversight. That came under harsh scrutiny after a magnitude 9.0 earthquake and a massive tsunami hit the plant on March 11, 2011. The disaster triggered three reactor meltdowns, a series of explosions and a radiation leak that forced 150,000 people to flee nearby villages.

TEPCO’s hapless efforts since to stabilize the situation have been like someone playing “whack-a-mole,” Japanese Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Toshimitsu Motegi has said.

‘NUCLEAR GYPSIES’

Hayashi is one of an estimated 50,000 workers who have been hired so far to shut down the nuclear plant and decontaminate the towns and villages nearby. Thousands more will have to follow. Some of the workers will be needed to maintain the system that cools damaged fuel rods in the reactors with thousands of tonnes of water every day. The contaminated runoff is then transferred to more than 1,000 tanks, enough to fill more than 130 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Dismantling the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant will require maintaining a job pool of at least 12,000 workers just through 2015, according to TEPCO’s blueprint. That compares to just more than 8,000 registered workers now. In recent months, about 6,000 have been working inside the plant.

The TEPCO hiring estimate does not include the manpower required for the government’s new US$330 million plan to build a massive ice wall around the plant to keep radiated water from leaking into the sea.

“I think we should really ask whether they are able to do this while ensuring the safety of the workers,” said Shinichi Nakayama, deputy director of safety research at the Japan Atomic Energy Agency.

Japan’s nuclear industry has relied on cheap labor since the first plants, including Fukushima Dai-ichi, opened in the 1970s. For years, the industry has rounded up itinerant workers known as “nuclear gypsies” from the Sanya neighborhood of Tokyo and Kamagasaki in Osaka, areas known for large numbers of homeless men.

“Working conditions in the nuclear industry have always been bad,” said Saburo Murata, deputy director of Osaka’s Hannan Chuo Hospital. “Problems with money, outsourced recruitment, lack of proper health insurance — these have existed for decades.”

The Fukushima Dai-ichi project has magnified those problems. When Japan’s parliament approved a bill to fund decontamination work in August 2011, the law did not apply existing rules regulating the construction industry. As a result, contractors working on decontamination have not been required to disclose information on management or undergo any screening.

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