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 (TEPCO), 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 150,000 yen 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 15-trillion yen 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.
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% 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 590 billion yen in new loans and refinancing. In 2011, in the wake of the disaster, TEPCO cut pay for its own workers by 20%.
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.
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 tons of water every day. The contaminated runoff is then transferred to more than 1,000 tanks.
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 33-billion-yen 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.
Filed under: 8.Eathquake & Nuclear accident