Revelations from a Fukushima cleanup worker-turned-whistleblower have exposed the plant's chaotic system of subcontractors, their alleged mafia connections and the super-exploitation of indigent workers doing this dangerous work.
The allegations, contained in an investigative report by Reuters, have also exposed deeply-rooted problems within Japan's nuclear industry as a whole. In the report, detailing the everyday realities of workers at the stricken facility, Reuters interviewed an estimated 80 casual workers and managers. The most common complaint voiced was the cleanup effort's utter dependence on subcontractors -- which it is alleged endangered not just workers' rights, but also their lives.
Tetsuya Hayashi, a 41-year-old construction worker by trade, applied for a job at the stricken Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, after he suspected that the plant was in deeper trouble than it was willing to admit. The $150 billion cleanup effort, which is expected to last several decades into the future, has already required up to 50,000 -- mostly casual -- workers.
However, Hayashi only lasted two weeks on the job, as it became apparent that the vast network of subcontractors involved in the cleanup efforts could not care less for his rights (or his health), while Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO), the plant's operator, was doing little except giving subcontractors a slap on the wrist.
Hired to monitor the exposure to radiation of plant workers leaving the job during the summer of 2012, Hayashi was assigned to the most bio-hazardous sector and given a protective anti-radiation suit. However, even with the suit on, he exceeded his safe annual radiation quota in less than an hour.
The subcontractor who hired Hayashi was not following nuclear safety rules, according to exposure guidelines by the International Atomic Energy Agency, Reuters reported.
Furthermore, after Hayashi's first two-week period of employment, he suspected that his passbook, a document showing the extent of a worker's exposure to radiation, had been falsified by his employer, RH Kogyo, to reflect that he had been hired by a company higher up on the contractor food chain. The passbook shows that Suzushi Kogyo employed him from May to June 2012, while another firm, Take One, employed him for a brief 10 days in June. The truth was that RH Kogyo had given him a one-year contract.
"My suspicion is that they falsified the records to hide the fact that they had outsourced my employment," Reuters reported Hayashi as saying.
The above was the start of his troubles.
"I felt cheated and entrapped...I had not agreed to any of this," Hayashi told the news agency. After complaining to a higher-level contractor, Hayashi was fired. When he complained to labor regulators, his plea went unanswered for a year. He landed another job at the plant, building a concrete foundation for the cooling tanks used to hold nuclear fuel rods.
Workers wearing protective suits and masks are seen next to the No.4 reactor at Tokyo Electric Power Company's (TEPCO) tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Fukushima prefecture (Reuters/Issei Kato)
The job was meant to pay $1,500 a month, but a third of his earnings were skimmed off by the subcontractor, Reuters cited him as saying. The problem is common to many of the thousands of cleanup workers, with little hope of TEPCO restoring any justice, according to the report. This is because Asia's largest power utility is only the tip of an iceberg of firms, which has been the main complaint from workers associated with the cleanup. While TEPCO is in charge of the cleanup as a whole, it also comprises four giant Japanese corporations, otherwise known as the "Big Four" -- Kajima, Obayashi, Shimizu Corp and Taisei Corp. These in turn provide hundreds of companies with funds and projects around the Fukushima prefecture, which ends up receiving little to no supervision.
Critics of the plant's cleanup say that this unregulated hiring of workers through subcontractors opens them to the risk of rights violations, extortion and blackmail from organized crime syndicates. But the lawyers of workers from around the Fukushima prefecture say even that is a good deal compared to being unemployed.
While neither the eight main subcontractors nor the plant's operator could be reached for comment on Hayashi's case, TEPCO's general manager for nuclear power, Masayuki Ono, told Reuters that the company "[signs] contracts with companies based on the cost needed to carry out a task... 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."
After being advised by a journalist, Hayashi claims to have kept copies of his work records, including pictures and videos to back up his story.
A worker shortage crisis continues to deepen at the same time -- both inside the plant throughout the surrounding Fukushima prefecture. Government data suggests that the number of job openings exceeds the number of applicants by 25 percent.
But despite research suggesting that raising the wages could bolster employment, TEPCO remains under pressure from the government to boost profits by March 2014. In response, the power utility has cut workers' wages at the plant by 20 percent.