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Fukushima ‘Decontamination Troops’ Often Exploited, Shunned via abc news

The ashes of half a dozen unidentified laborers ended up at a Buddhist temple in this town just north of the crippled Fukushima nuclear plant. Some of the dead men had no papers, others left no emergency contacts. Their names could not be confirmed and no family members had been tracked down to claim their remains.

They were simply labeled “decontamination troops” — unknown soldiers in Japan’s massive cleanup campaign to make Fukushima livable again five years after radiation poisoned the fertile countryside.

The men were among the 26,000 workers — many in their 50s and 60s from the margins of society with no special skills or close family ties — tasked with removing the contaminated topsoil and stuffing it into tens of thousands of black bags lining the fields and roads. They wipe off roofs, clean out gutters and chop down trees in a seemingly endless routine.

Coming from across Japan to do a dirty, risky and undesirable job, the workers make up the very bottom of the nation’s murky, caste-like subcontractor system long criticized for labor violations. Vulnerable to exploitation and shunned by local residents, they typically work on three-to-six-month contracts with little or no benefits, living in makeshift company barracks. And the government is not even making sure that their radiation levels are individually tested.

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Most workers keep their mouths shut for fear of losing their jobs. One laborer in a gray jacket and baggy pants, carrying cans of beer on his way home, said he was instructed never to talk to reporters.

A 62-year-old seasonal worker, Munenori Kagaya, said he had trouble finding jobs after he and his fellow workers fought for and won unpaid daily “danger” allowance of 10,000 yen ($88) for work in Tamura city in 2012.

Officials keep close tabs on journalists. Minutes after chatting with some workers in Minamisoma, Associated Press journalists received a call from a city official warning them not to talk to decontamination crews.

Beyond the work’s arduous nature, the men also face radiation exposure risks. Inhaling radioactive particles could trigger lung cancer, said Junji Kato, a doctor who provides health checks for some workers.

Although most laborers working in residential areas use protective gear properly, others in remote areas are not monitored closely, according to workers and Nakamura, the leader of the radiation workers support group. Many are not given compulsory training or education about dealing with radiation, he said.

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