(Read this story in a PDF: link.reuters.com/rad83v)
* Hundreds of small firms work on the Fukushima shutdown and
* Most have little experience, some have yakuza ties
* Tepco and Japan's "Big Four" construction firms lead
* Low-paid workers complain labour brokers skim their wages
* Safety concerns raised in highly radioactive environment
* Violators rarely punished as cheap workers needed, critics
By Antoni Slodkowski and Mari Saito
IWAKI, Oct 25 IWAKI, Oct 23 Tetsuya
Hayashi went to Fukushima to take a job at ground zero of the
worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. He lasted less than two
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 labour
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
Hayashi's hard times are not unusual in the estimated
$150-billion effort to dismantle the Fukushima reactors and
clean up the neighbouring 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
scrutinised network of subcontractors - many of them
inexperienced with nuclear work and some of them, police say,
have ties to organised 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
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 organised 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, labour brokers have
stepped into the gap, recruiting people whose lives have reached
a dead end or who have trouble finding a job outside the
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
Tepco's hapless efforts since to stabilise 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 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
Japan's nuclear industry has relied on cheap labour 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 neighbourhood of Tokyo and
Kamagasaki in Osaka, areas known for large numbers of homeless
"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 kilometres (30 miles) from the plant, into a
bustling labour hub at the front line of the massive public
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, labour 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
"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.
Tepco said the survey represents one of the steps it has
taken to crack down on abuses. "We take issues related to
inappropriate subcontractors very seriously," the utility said
in a statement to Reuters.
Tepco said it warns its contractors to respect labour
regulations. The company said it has established a hotline for
workers, and has organised lectures for subcontractors to raise
awareness on labour regulations. In June, it introduced
compulsory training for new workers on what constitutes illegal
Tepco does not publish average hourly wages in the plant.
Workers interviewed by Reuters said wages could be as low as
around $6 an hour, but usually average around $12 an hour -
about a third lower than the average in Japan's construction
Workers for subcontractors in the most-contaminated area
outside the plant are supposed to be paid an additional
government-funded hazard allowance of about $100 per day,
although many report it has not been paid.
The work in the plant can also be dangerous. Six workers in
October were exposed to radioactive water when one of them
detached a pipe connected to a treatment system. In August, 12
workers were irradiated when removing rubble from around one of
the reactors. The accidents prompted Japan's nuclear regulator
to question whether Tepco has been delegating too much.
"Proper oversight is important in preventing careless
mistakes. Right now Tepco may be leaving it all up to the
subcontractors," said the head of Japan's Nuclear Regulation
Authority, Shunichi Tanaka in response to the recent accidents.
Tepco said it will take measures to ensure that such
accidents are not repeated. The utility said it monitors safety
with spot inspections and checks on safeguards for workers when
projects are divided between subcontractors.
The NRA, which is primarily charged with reactor safety, is
only one of several agencies dealing with the Fukushima project:
the ministries of labour, environment, trade and economy are
also responsible for managing the clean-up and enforcing
regulations, along with local authorities and police.
Yousuke Minaguchi, a lawyer who has represented Fukushima
workers, says Japan's government has turned a blind eye to the
problem of worker exploitation. "On the surface, they say it is
illegal. But in reality they don't want to do anything. By not
punishing anyone, they can keep using a lot of workers cheaply."
Economy Minister Motegi, who is responsible for Japan's
energy policy and decommissioning of the plant, instructed Tepco
to improve housing for workers. He has said more needs to be
done to ensure workers are being treated well.
"To get work done, it's necessary to cooperate with a large
number of companies," he told Reuters. "Making sure that those
relations are proper, and that work is moving forward is
something we need to keep working on daily."
Hayashi offers a number of reasons for his decision to head
to Fukushima from his home in Nagano, an area in central Japan
famous for its ski slopes, where in his youth Hayashi honed his
He says he was sceptical of the government's early claim
that the Fukushima plant was under control and wanted to see it
for himself. He had worked in construction, knew how to weld and
felt he could contribute.
Like many other workers, Hayashi was initially recruited by
a broker. He was placed with RH Kogyo, a subcontractor six
levels removed from Tepco.
When he arrived in Fukushima, Hayashi received instructions
from five other firms in addition to the labour broker and RH
Kogyo. It was the sixth contractor up the ladder, ABL Co. Ltd
that told him he would be working in a highly radioactive area.
ABL Co reported to Tokyo Energy & Systems Inc, which in
Fukushima manages some 200 workers as a first-tier contractor
Hayashi says he kept copies of his work records and took
pictures and videos inside the plant, encouraged by a TV
journalist he had met before beginning his assignment. At one
point, his boss from RH Kogyo told him not to worry because any
radiation he was exposed to would not "build up".
"Once you wait a week, the amount of radiation goes down by
half," the man is seen telling him in one of the recordings. The
former supervisor declined to comment.
The statement represents a mistaken account of radiation
safety standards applied in Fukushima, which are based on the
view that there is no such thing as a safe dose. Workers are
limited to 100 millisieverts of radiation exposure over five
years. The International Atomic Energy Agency says exposure over
that threshold measurably raises the risk of later cancers.
After Hayashi's first two-week stint at the plant ended, he
discovered his nuclear passbook - a record of radiation exposure
- had been falsified to show he had been an employee of larger
firms higher up the ladder of contractors, not RH Kogyo.
Reuters reviewed the passbook and documents related to
Hayashi's employment. The nuclear passbook shows that Hayashi
was employed by Suzushi Kogyo from May to June 2012. It says
Take One employed Hayashi for ten days in June 2012. Hayashi
says that is false because he had a one-year contract with RH
"My suspicion is that they falsified the records to hide the
fact that they had outsourced my employment," Hayashi said.
ABL Co. said Hayashi had worked with the firm but declined
to comment on his claims. Tepco, Tokyo Energy & Systems, Suzushi
Kogyo and RH Kogyo also declined to comment. Take One could not
be reached for comment.
In September 2012, Hayashi found another job with a
subcontractor for Kajima, one of Japan's largest construction
companies. He didn't want to go back home empty-handed and says
he thought he might have been just unlucky with his first bad
experience at the plant.
Instead, his problems continued. This time a broker who
recruited several workers for the subcontractor insisted on
access to his bank account and then took almost a third of the
roughly $160 Hayashi was supposed to be earning each day,
The broker, according to Hayashi, identified himself as a
former member of a local gang from Hayashi's native Nagano.
Ryo Goshima, 23, said the same broker from Nagano placed him
in a crew doing decontamination work and then skimmed almost
half of what he had been promised. Goshima and Hayashi became
friends in Fukushima when they wound up working for the same
Goshima said he was fired in December after complaining
about the skimming practice. Tech, the contractor that had
employed him, said it had fired another employee who was found
to have skimmed Goshima's wages. Tech said Goshima left for
personal reasons. The firm paid Goshima back wages, both sides
say. The total payment was $9,000, according to Goshima.
Kajima spokesman Atsushi Fujino said the company was not in
a position to comment on either of the cases since it did not
have a contract with Hayashi or Goshima.
"We pay the companies who work for us and instruct those
companies to pay the hazard allowance," the Kajima spokesman
said in a statement.
THE YAKUZA CONNECTION
The complexity of Fukushima contracts and the shortage of
workers have played into the hands of the yakuza, Japan's
organised crime syndicates, which have run labour rackets for
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 organised 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 labour 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
organised 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
"In contracts with our subcontractors we have clauses on not
cooperating with organised crime," the spokesman said, adding
the company was working with the police and its subcontractors
to ensure this sort of violation does not happen again.
In April, the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare
sanctioned three companies for illegally dispatching workers to
Fukushima. One of those, a Nagasaki-based company called Yamato
Engineering, sent 510 workers to lay pipe at the nuclear plant
in violation of labour laws banning brokers. All three companies
were ordered by labour regulators to improve business practices,
In 2009, Yamato Engineering was banned from public works
projects because of a police determination that it was
"effectively under the control of organised crime," according to
a public notice by the Nagasaki-branch of the land and transport
ministry. Yamato Engineering had no immediate comment.
Goshima said he himself had been working for the local
chapter of Yamaguchi-gumi since the age of 14, extorting money
and collecting debts. He quit at age 20 after spending some time
in jail. He had to borrow money from a loan shark to pay off his
gang, which demanded about $2,000 a month for several months to
let him go.
"My parents didn't want any problems from the gang, so they
told me to leave and never return," Goshima said. He went to
Fukushima looking for a well-paying job to pay down the debt -
and ended up working for a yakuza member from his home district.
In towns and villages around the plant in Fukushima,
thousands of workers wielding industrial hoses, operating
mechanical diggers and wearing dosimeters to measure radiation
have been deployed to scrub houses and roads, dig up topsoil and
strip trees of leaves in an effort to reduce background
radiation so that refugees can return home.
Hundreds of small companies have been given contracts for
this decontamination work. Nearly 70 percent of those surveyed
in the first half of 2013 had broken labour regulations,
according to a labour ministry report in July. The ministry's
Fukushima office had received 567 complaints related to working
conditions in the decontamination effort in the year to March.
It issued 10 warnings. No firm was penalized.
One of the firms that has faced complaints is Denko Keibi,
which before the disaster used to supply security guards for
Denko Keibi managed 35 workers in Tamura, a village near the
plant. At an arbitration session in May that Reuters attended,
the workers complained they had been packed five to a room in
small cabins. Dinner was typically a bowl of rice and half a
pepper or a sardine, they said. When a driver transporting
workers flipped their van on an icy road in December,
supervisors ordered workers to take off their uniforms and
scatter to distant hospitals, the workers said. Denko Keibi had
no insurance for workplace accidents and wanted to avoid
reporting the crash, they said.
"We were asked to come in and go to work quickly," an
executive of Denko Keibi said, apologising to the workers, who
later won compensation of about $6,000 each for unpaid wages.
"In hindsight, this is not something an amateur should have
gotten involved in."
In the arbitration session Reuters attended, Denko Keibi
said there had been problems with working conditions but said it
was still examining what happened in the December accident.
The Denko Keibi case is unusual because of the large number
of workers involved, the labour union that won the settlement
said. Many workers are afraid to speak out, often because they
have to keep paying back loans to their employers.
"The workers are scared to sue because they're afraid they
will be blacklisted," said Mitsuo Nakamura, a former day
labourer who runs a group set up to protect Fukushima workers.
"You have to remember these people often can't get any other
Hayashi's experiences at the plant turned him into an
activist. He was reassigned to a construction site outside Tokyo
by his second employer after he posted an online video about his
first experiences in the plant in late 2012. After a tabloid
magazine published a story about Hayashi, his managers asked him
to leave. He has since moved to Tokyo and filed a complaint with
the labour standards office. He volunteered in the successful
parliamentary campaign of former actor turned anti-nuclear
activist, Taro Yamamoto.
"Major contractors that run this system think that workers
will always be afraid to talk because they are scared to lose
their jobs," said Hayashi. "But Japan can't continue to ignore
this problem forever."
(Additional reporting by Kevin Krolicki, Sophie Knight and
Chris Meyers in Tokyo and Yoshiyuki Osada in Osaka; Editing By