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

That meant anyone could become a nuclear contractor overnight. Many small companies without experience rushed to bid for contracts and then often turned to brokers to round up the manpower, employers and workers say.

The resulting influx of workers has turned the town of Iwaki, about 50km from the plant, into a bustling labor hub at the front line of the massive public works project.

In extreme cases, brokers have been known to “buy” workers by paying off their debts. The workers are then forced to work until they pay off their new bosses for sharply reduced wages and under conditions that make it hard for them to speak out against abuses, labor activists and workers in Fukushima said.

Lake Barrett, a former US nuclear regulator and an adviser to TEPCO, said the system is so ingrained it will take time to change.

“There’s been a century of tradition of big Japanese companies using contractors, and that’s just the way it is in Japan,” he said. “You’re not going to change that overnight just because you have a new job here, so I think you have to adapt.”

A TEPCO survey last year showed that nearly half of the workers at Fukushima Dai-ichi were employed by one contractor, but managed by another. Japanese law prohibits such arrangements to prevent brokers from skimming workers’ wages.

The firm said the survey represents one of the steps it has taken to crack down on abuses.

“We take issues related to inappropriate subcontractors very seriously,” the utility said in a statement.

TEPCO said it warns its contractors to respect labor regulations. The firm said it has established a hotline for workers and has organized lectures for subcontractors to raise awareness on labor regulations. In June, it introduced compulsory training for new workers on what constitutes illegal employment practices.

TEPCO does not publish average hourly wages in the plant. Workers interviewed said wages could be as low as about US$6 an hour, but usually average about US$12 an hour — about a third lower than the average in Japan’s construction industry.

Workers for subcontractors in the most-contaminated area outside the plant are supposed to be paid an additional government-funded hazard allowance of about US$100 per day, but many report it has not been paid.

The work in the plant can also be dangerous. Six workers were exposed this month to radioactive water when one of them detached a pipe connected to a treatment system. In August, 12 workers were irradiated when removing rubble from around one of the reactors. The accidents prompted Japan’s nuclear regulator to question whether TEPCO has been delegating too much.

“Proper oversight is important in preventing careless mistakes. Right now TEPCO may be leaving it all up to the subcontractors,” Nuclear Regulation Authority Chairman Shunichi Tanaka said in response to the recent accidents.

TEPCO said it will take measures to ensure that such accidents are not repeated. The utility said it monitors safety with spot inspections and checks on safeguards for workers when projects are divided between subcontractors.

The Nuclear Regulation Authority, which is primarily charged with reactor safety, is only one of several agencies dealing with the Fukushima Dai-ichi project: The ministries of labor, environment, trade and economy are also responsible for managing the cleanup and enforcing regulations, along with local authorities and police.

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