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Japan’s multibillion-dollar radiological cleanup is marred by employment law violations, shoddy working practices and a shortage of people willing to work.
health,” he said.
All of the workers in Miyakoji we spoke to said they had been properly trained and equipped, and that they were treated well. The local farming machinery firm in charge of the work granted GlobalPost access to two decontamination sites, and permitted us to conduct unsupervised interviews with employees.
But their counterparts at other sites around Fukushima claim that contractors have cheated them out of special payments and withheld information on their radiation exposure.
In addition, some contractors allegedly ordered their employees to dump contaminated soil, plants and water into rivers rather than collect them for storage and eventual disposal. The Environment Ministry promised to investigate the claims, after the Asahi Shimbun, a newspaper, filmed laborers performing slipshod work.
In a meeting with reporters earlier this month, three workers, who asked not be identified by the media, admitted they had dumped leaves and branches into rivers. “I wondered if it was really all right to do that,” one said. “But I was afraid that I might be fired if I refused. And my supervisor was doing the same thing right in front of me.”
The ministry said it would write to contractors reminding them to follow government-set decontamination guidelines.
In other cases, workers have been denied special allowances for working inside the 20 km (12.4 mile) evacuation zone.
One laborer who asked to be identified only by his last name, Nakamura, said he had spent about 50 days working just inside the no-go zone on a short-term contract for a major construction company.
GlobalPost in-depth: After the tsunami
On top of his daily wage of 12,000 yen ($125), he was entitled to 10,000 yen a day from the central government as danger pay for operating in a highly radioactive area. He says the government paid the money — more than half a million yen in total — but that his employer had simply held on to it.
The 54-year-old, who with several coworkers has formed a union to demand payment, believes that thousands may have been swindled out of cash.
“We’re trying our best, but we’re just a minnow up against a powerful corporation,” Nakamura, who has since quit his job, told GlobalPost.
The Environment Ministry stopped short of taking legal action or naming the companies concerned, saying only that it would investigate the claims and send written demands that workers be paid retrospectively.
Nakamura also worries about radiation. He underwent a check using a full body counter at the start of his two-month contract, and then again when it ended. But the company has yet to tell him his readings, despite repeated requests. When he left, the dosimeter Nakamura had worn around his neck to measure cumulative external exposure was taken away. He still doesn’t know the readings stored inside the device.
“If I become ill at some point, I’ll have no evidence of my cumulative radiation dose to offer as proof that I worked in a dangerous environment,” he said.
Nakamura said he and the other members of his crew — protected only by thick surgical masks, regular overalls and gloves — worked long days collecting leaves and feeding them into a huge cutting machine. Radiation levels near the machine were almost four times higher than the 0.23 microsievert an hour target the government has set for members of the public.
“Some of the men I worked with spent the entire day in that part of the site,” he said. “I’m at the age where I don’t need to worry too much about what might happen to my health 20 or 30 years down the line … it’s the younger guys I worry about.”
Another concern is that organized crime is trying to profit by exploiting workers in the Fukushima exclusion zone. The government’s dependence on big contractors has opened the door to the yakuza, Japan’s powerful crime syndicates, whose ties to the construction industry stretch back decades.
In January, police arrested a senior member of the country’s second-biggest yakuza group, the Sumiyoshi-kai, for providing three contract employees to a construction firm involved in decontamination work in Fukushima, and pocketing a third of their wages.
Media reports said the gangster had decided to infiltrate the cleanup because it offers higher financial rewards than regular building work. The contract to clean up Tamura,