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.
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 $1,500 a month – and paid him the rest in cash in brown paper envelopes, he says. Reuters reviewed documents related to Hayashi’s complaint, including pay envelopes and bank statements.
Hayashi’s hard times are not unusual in the estimated $150-billion effort to dismantle the Fukushima 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 clean-up. 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 utility remains in charge of the work to dismantle the damaged Fukushima 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.
Tokyo Electric, widely known as 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.
The unprecedented Fukushima nuclear clean-up 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, according to government data.
Raising wages could draw more workers but that has not happened, the data shows. Tepco is under pressure to post a profit in the year to March 2014 under a turnaround plan Japan’s top banks recently financed with $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.
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.”Hayashi says he kept copies of his work records and took pictures and videos inside the plant, encouraged by a TV journalist he had met before beginning his assignment. At one point, his boss from RH Kogyo told him not to worry because any radiation he was exposed to would not “build up”.
“Once you wait a week, the amount of radiation goes down by half,” the man is seen telling him in one of the recordings. The former supervisor declined to comment.
The statement represents a mistaken account of radiation safety standards applied in Fukushima, which are based on the view that there is no such thing as a safe dose. Workers are limited to 100 millisieverts of radiation exposure over five years. The International Atomic Energy Agency says exposure over that threshold measurably raises the risk of later cancers.
After Hayashi’s first two-week stint at the plant ended, he discovered his nuclear passbook – a record of radiation exposure – had been falsified to show he had been an employee of larger firms higher up the ladder of contractors, not RH Kogyo.
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.