By Antoni Slodkowski and Mari Saito
25 Oct 2013

IWAKI (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.

"We sign contracts with companies based on the cost needed to carry out a task," Masayuki Ono, a general manager for nuclear power at Tepco, told Reuters. "The companies then hire their own employees taking into account our contract. It's very difficult for us to go in and check their contracts."

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.

The result has been a proliferation of small firms - many unregistered. Some 800 companies are active inside the Fukushima plant and hundreds more are working in the decontamination effort outside its gates, according to Tepco and documents reviewed by Reuters.

'Forgotten in Fukushima' video by Reuters shows how workers at the Fukushima Daiichi plant face low pay, high risks, and gangsters. Photo: Reuters

Tepco, Asia's largest listed power utility, had long enjoyed close ties to regulators and lax government oversight. That came under harsh scrutiny after a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and a massive tsunami hit the plant on March 11, 2011. The disaster triggered three reactor meltdowns, a series of explosions and a radiation leak that forced 150,000 people to flee nearby villages.

Tepco's hapless efforts since to stabilize the situation have been like someone playing "whack-a-mole", Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Toshimitsu Motegi has said.

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 Fukushima project has magnified those problems. When Japan's parliament approved a bill to fund decontamination work in August 2011, the law did not apply existing rules regulating the construction industry. As a result, contractors working on decontamination have not been required to disclose information on management or undergo any screening.

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, according to employers and workers.

The resulting influx of workers has turned the town of Iwaki, some 50 kilometers (30 miles) 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 U.S. nuclear regulator and an advisor to Tepco, says 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 told Reuters. "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 from 2012 showed nearly half of the workers at Fukushima were employed by one contractor but managed by another. Japanese law prohibits such arrangements, in order to prevent brokers from skimming workers' wages. […]

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.

Arai was convicted of supplying workers to a site managed by Obayashi, one of Japan's leading contractors, in Date, a town northwest of the Fukushima plant. Date was in the path of the most concentrated plume of radiation after the disaster.

A police official with knowledge of the investigation said Arai's case was just "the tip of the iceberg" in terms of organized crime involvement in the clean-up.

A spokesman for Obayashi said the company "did not notice" that one of its subcontractors was getting workers from a gangster.

[more]

Special Report: Help wanted in Fukushima: Low pay, high risks and gangsters

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