Fri, Mar 21, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Job of cleaning Fukushima falls to desperate

A labor crisis has left unskilled, destitute workers in dangerous conditions at Japan’s wrecked nuclear plant

By Hiroko Tabuchi  /  NY Times News Service, NARAHA, Japan

He believes such slipshod work eventually compromised the tanks, some of which have since leaked.

“I spoke out many times on the defects, but nobody listened,” said Uechi, a father of four who says he left Okinawa and its depressed economy for Fukushima to provide a better life for his children.

He said he rarely saw TEPCO managers while on the job.

He said he expressed his worries not only to his immediate bosses, but to TEPCO.

Asked about the complaints, TEPCO said it could not discuss individual workers out of privacy concerns.

TEPCO has promised to increase compensation to make up for the risky and unstable nature of the work. Still, workers eating dinner at a dormitory near the plant were skeptical, especially about whether they would receive any extra money.

“Once the many levels of contractors skim off their share, there’s not very much left for us,” one worker in his 40s said, as he and two colleagues washed down a simple meal of chicken, eggplant and rice with beer and whiskey.

Each of the men — who feared being fired if their names were used — was housed in tiny rooms with a bed and a desk. The area around the dormitory is mainly deserted, since many people refused to move back after the accident.

Workers say there is little to do at night other than watch TV, play roulette at a tiny game center and drink. A store inside “J-Village” — TEPCO’s base outside the plant — sells beer, whiskey and sake. According to several accounts, alcoholism is rampant, and one worker said he and his colleagues sometimes showed up for work hung over.

Struggling to maintain 3,000 workers at the plant — compared with 4,500 at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant — labor brokers are getting desperate. Mostly chased away by labor activists from urban areas where day laborers and homeless people congregate, the brokers have increasingly taken their pleas online and made clear their standards are low.

One ad, for work involving radiation monitoring, said, “You must have common sense and be able to carry out a conversation.”

Although it is unclear if any workers were living on the streets before they came to the plant, laborers and others familiar with the workforce say many people there are living on the edge.

“We’re talking people who are basically living hand-to-mouth,” said Hiroyuki Watanabe, a City Council member in nearby Iwaki.

One worker who refused to give his name said he was already so vulnerable that he ended up homeless when he lost his job cleaning contaminated mud off workers’ boots. Another, hired to check for cracks at the plant’s reactors, said he arrived after losing his factory job and losing a place to live when he broke up with his girlfriend.

The labor broker he said that he worked with, a company called Takahashi Kensetsu, did not ask about his credentials.

He says he was often unsure what he was checking for on the reactors, and received little explanation of potential hazards. After his pay was delayed and he was denied overtime, he quit. He has won some back pay with help from the local labor standards office.

Takahashi Kensetsu had disappeared by then — empty beer cans and comic books littered its vacant offices during a recent visit — so the labor advocates got the money from the contractor that hired the broker. Takahashi Kensetsu could not be found in an official local business registry, and repeated calls to the number listed in its ad rang with no answer.

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