| NAHA, Japan
NAHA, Japan Dec 6 Storage tanks at the
Fukushima nuclear plant like one that spilled almost 80,000
gallons of radioactive water this year were built in part by
workers illegally hired in one of the poorest corners of Japan,
say labour regulators and some of those involved in the work.
"Even if we didn't agree with how things were being done, we
had to keep quiet and work fast," said Yoshitatsu Uechi, 48, a
mechanic and former bus driver, who was one of a crew of 17
workers recruited in Okinawa and sent to Fukushima in June 2012
- among the thousands of workers from across Japan who have put
together the emergency water tanks and stabilized the plant
after three reactor meltdowns that were triggered by the March
2011 earthquake and tsunami.
The Okinawa crew was recruited by Token Kogyo, an
unregistered broker, and passed on to work at the Fukushima
plant under the direction of Tec, a larger contractor which
reported to construction firm Taisei Corp, records
show. That practice of having workers hired by a broker but
managed by another contractor is banned under Japanese law to
protect workers from having their wages skimmed and to clarify
who is responsible for their safety.
In September, Okinawa labour regulators sanctioned Token
Kogyo after investigating a complaint by Uechi and concluding
the broker improperly sent workers to Fukushima, said an
official with knowledge of the order, which was not made public.
The official said Token Kogyo did not have the required license
to dispatch workers. Japan's labour laws also prohibit
third-party brokers from sending workers to construction jobs
like the tank assembly where the Okinawa crew was employed. The
sanction is a written order to improve business practice.
At Fukushima, the workers from Okinawa were told by a Tec
supervisor to lie to the plant's operator, Tokyo Electric Power
Co, and say they were employed by Tec, according to
Uechi, three other workers, employment documents and a recording
of a workplace briefing reviewed by Reuters.
"People didn't have contracts, so when they weren't needed
any more, they were cut immediately," said Uechi. Other members
of the Okinawa-hired crew confirmed details of his account, but
asked not to be named.
Tokyo Electric, or Tepco, declined to comment on the
specifics of the Okinawa crew, citing a need to protect the
confidentiality of worker complaints brought to its attention
and an inability to confirm relevant facts. Taisei declined to
comment in detail, saying it "appropriately instructs its
sub-contractors and tightly monitors its network of
Token Kogyo declined to comment on Uechi's case but
confirmed it had sent some workers to Fukushima from Okinawa.
Tec did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Uechi complained to Tepco about work conditions at Fukushima
in a series of phone calls beginning in August 2012, he said. He
described his concerns about the quality of work at the plant in
interviews with Japan's Chunichi newspaper and the Associated
Press this year. The illegal employment practices and the
sanction against Token Kogyo have not been previously reported.
Tepco has promised to improve working conditions in an
unprecedented nuclear decommissioning project expected to take
more than 30 years. The company said last month
it would more carefully monitor sub-contractors and double the
pay for thousands of workers after a Reuters report found
widespread abuses, including falsified employment records,
skimmed wages and a lack of worker contracts.
"Ensuring all workers at Fukushima are being employed
appropriately is a very high priority that has a direct relation
to our ability to bring a close to the accident," Tokyo Electric
said in a statement. "We are working with all our contractors
and others to ensure that laws and regulations are observed."
Yosuke Minaguchi, a lawyer who has represented Fukushima
workers, said problems in enforcing labour standards in the
nuclear clean-up could threaten its completion.
"I have seen many younger workers drop out of the clean-up
after they had their wages skimmed or after facing dangers that
were not explained to them," he said. "Without stronger labour
protection, there's no way the decommissioning project will
Since the 2011 disaster, huge volumes of radioactive water
have built up at the Fukushima site, with some leaking into the
nearby Pacific Ocean. As an interim measure, Tepco rushed an
order for steel tanks that could be put together quickly after
being shipped in parts and assembled on site.
These bolted-style storage tanks, each as tall as a 3-storey
building, were intended to last only until 2016, giving Tepco
time to have a purification system in place so contaminated
water could be cleansed and safely discharged.
In August, one of the tanks was discovered to have leaked
about 300 tons of water, raising global alarm over Japan's
handling of the crisis and prompting the government to order
that the makeshift, bolted tanks like those assembled by the
Okinawa crew be replaced by sturdier, welded tanks.
Weeks later, radiation at the ground near one of the tanks
spiked to a level so high that it would have caused radiation
sickness within an hour if a worker had been directly exposed.
That spike, after an apparent leak of radioactive water,
occurred in the same area where Uechi and the Okinawa crew had
been working - an open space known as H3 on an elevated plain
above Fukushima's four wrecked reactors.
"Yes, we did a shoddy job," said one of Uechi's co-workers,
who didn't want to be named as it could jeopardise his job
prospects. "The quality of what we did was low, but what else
would you expect? We had to race to finish up the tanks." The
worker quit after only a month at Fukushima due to the fear of
radiation. He now works on a construction site in Okinawa.
Uechi says he spent much of his six months at Fukushima
complaining about work standards and working conditions and
being ignored. He said workers building the storage tanks last
year never felt able to call attention to defects.
In one example, Uechi said workers were rushed to apply
caulking to seal the tanks even when it was raining and snowing.
"It didn't make any sense, because the caulking wouldn't get to
the metal. It would float out," Uechi said. Tepco said it could
not confirm details reported by Uechi, but said workers should
not have been working on sealing the tanks in the rain because
it could have made the sealant in the tanks more prone to fail.
Token Kogyo, the broker that recruited Uechi and other
workers, operates in the suburbs of Naha, the largest city on
Okinawa island, a 2-1/2 hour flight southwest of Tokyo. The firm
is involved in building work on the island and targets seasonal
workers willing to travel to construction jobs in Japan's larger
cities, job ads issued by the company and posters on the
building housing the firm show.
As of September, government data showed there were fewer
than six job openings for every 10 seeking work in Okinawa. By
contrast, there were as many as 12 openings for every 10 workers
in Fukushima prefecture, where mass evacuations have hobbled the
Uechi, who has three school-age children, said he was lured
by the promise of pay that would be more than twice the minimum
wage in Okinawa. He and the other workers were only told they
were going to the Fukushima nuclear plant at the job interview.
Workers were housed three or four to a small room, and work
conditions were tough. The day would start with breakfast at 5
a.m. at a highway rest-stop now housing workers. Protective
suits were hot in summer, and the work was cold in winter. Five
of the 17 of the Okinawa hires quit in the first month. Only
three, including Uechi, lasted until December, he said.
The Okinawa crew were all paid without any documentation
before Uechi complained to Tepco, which ordered Taisei to
investigate. As a result, Tec supervisors brought the Okinawa
crew into a room in August 2012 and asked them to fill out a
confidential survey requested by Tepco on work conditions.
On a recording of that meeting which Uechi said he made, a
person he identified as a Tec supervisor is heard telling
workers they should report that they were receiving hazard pay
and were employed by Tec. That was untrue as they had been hired
by Token Kogyo and paid for their early work at Fukushima by the
broker, Uechi said and his bank records show.
"When it comes to our sub-contractors, we register them all
as Tec," the supervisor is heard to say. "If you want to say
that's a forgery, then, yes, it's a forgery."
Uechi declined to fill in the form as instructed, and
continued to complain to Tepco. Later that month, Tec gave Uechi
a contract until end-December and increased his pay to 16,000
yen ($160) a day from 13,000 yen. It was not clear if other
workers were given contracts, though Uechi said others were
given a similar pay rise.
Uechi said he was sent home with almost three weeks left on
his contract. He was told that was because Taisei had lost a bid
for a new job at the plant. Taisei declined to comment on that
matter. Tepco said it was "not in a position to know the details
of the contract terms."
ONE MILLION YEN
In January of this year, when Uechi pressed his complaints
with regulators and began speaking to reporters about his
experience, Tec Chairman Yasushi Ogawa visited Okinawa and
handed Uechi 1 million yen ($9,800) in cash. Ogawa said this was
for "unpaid wages and compensation," Uechi said. He said Ogawa
asked him not to complain to Taisei again at that meeting.
Uechi accepted the payment but pressed Tec to provide a
breakdown of the money for tax purposes. Reuters reviewed a
recording of the meeting Uechi said he had made and a document
he said Ogawa asked him to sign when handing over the money.
Tec referred all questions to Ogawa. Reached by phone, Ogawa
said he could not comment until mid-December at the earliest,
and might not be able to comment at all on the case.
For his part, Uechi is preparing to go back to Fukushima.
He hopes to find a job in the decontamination around the
plant that is being undertaken so tens of thousands of evacuees
can return home. His unemployment benefits ran out in June and
his family needs the money, he said.
(Additional reporting by Sophie Knight and Mari Saito; Editing
by Kevin Krolicki and Ian Geoghegan)