Oct 25 (Reuters) – 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 plant in the summer of 2012. 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 says 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, declined to comment or could not be reached for comment on his case.
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 (1 tonne = 1.102 metric tons) 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 Daiichi 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 over 8,000 registered workers now. In recent months, some 6,000 have been working inside the plant.
The Tepco hiring estimate does not include the manpower required for the government’s new $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, 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 YAKUZA CONNECTION
The complexity of Fukushima contracts and the shortage of workers have played into the hands of the yakuza, Japan’s organized crime syndicates, which have run labor rackets for generations.
Nearly 50 gangs with 1,050 members operate in Fukushima prefecture dominated by three major syndicates – Yamaguchi-gumi, Sumiyoshi-kai and Inagawa-kai, police say.
Ministries, the companies involved in the decontamination and decommissioning work, and police have set up a task force to eradicate organized crime from the nuclear clean-up project. Police investigators say they cannot crack down on the gang members they track without receiving a complaint. They also rely on major contractors for information.
In a rare prosecution involving a yakuza executive, Yoshinori Arai, a boss in a gang affiliated with the Sumiyoshi-kai, was convicted of labor law violations. Arai admitted pocketing around $60,000 over two years by skimming a third of wages paid to workers in the disaster zone. In March a judge gave him an eight-month suspended sentence because Arai said he had resigned from the gang and regretted his actions.
The Denko Keibi case is unusual because of the large number of workers involved, the labor union that won the settlement said. Many workers are afraid to speak out, often because they have to keep paying back loans to their employers.
“The workers are scared to sue because they’re afraid they will be blacklisted,” said Mitsuo Nakamura, a former day laborer who runs a group set up to protect Fukushima workers. “You have to remember these people often can’t get any other job.”
Hayashi’s experiences at the plant turned him into an activist. He was reassigned to a construction site outside Tokyo by his second employer after he posted an online video about his first experiences in the plant in late 2012. After a tabloid magazine published a story about Hayashi, his managers asked him to leave. He has since moved to Tokyo and filed a complaint with the labor standards office. He volunteered in the successful parliamentary campaign of former actor turned anti-nuclear activist, Taro Yamamoto.
“Major contractors that run this system think that workers will always be afraid to talk because they are scared to lose their jobs,” said Hayashi. “But Japan can’t continue to ignore this problem forever.”
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