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In the depths of Japan’s nuclear crisis in March 2011, a small band of workers at the Fukushima power plant stayed behind, stomaching daily doses of deadly radiation to bring the plant under control after a massive earthquake and tsunami triggered multiple meltdowns. They became known as the Fukushima 50.
“We felt we had a responsibility to put things right,” nuclear engineer Atsufumi Yoshizawa told America Tonight. “And we felt that we were probably the only ones that could deal with the situation.”
The courage of employees like Yoshizawa made them heroes in Japan, and the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the operator of the stricken power plant, showcases them as symbols for what the company represents. But there is another group of workers that TEPCO rarely mentions, workers who continue to undertake the largest radiation cleanup in history, but are subcontracted into a system that leaves them vulnerable to exploitation. These workers put themselves at great risk every day, for minimum wage, only to be fired when their radiation levels get too high.
America Tonight gained rare access into the dark underworld of Japan’s decontamination industry for this look at the conditions of the workers at its center, and those who profit from their labor.
A sign for J-Village, formerly Japan's national soccer training center.America Tonight
J-Village used to be Japan’s national soccer training center. Now, it’s where workers gather before heading into the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant – the frontlines of an ongoing nuclear disaster. In Japan, they’re known as “nuclear gypsies,” an army of about 50,000 itinerant laborers recruited at low pay to clean up the radioactive debris and build tanks to store the unending flood of contaminated water that’s generated to keep the reactor cores cool.
Most of them are subcontractors, unskilled and poorly paid.
“They’re, in many cases, living sort of drifter-type lifestyles,” said David McNeill, a journalist and author who has been following the plight of these unsung heroes of Fukushima. “They move from job to job. They’re unqualified, of course, in most cases.”
One of those workers, who had never before spoken to media, told America Tonight about the big promises – and the big risks – of the job.
“My job was to help workers remove their gear when they came back from dealing with contaminated water and debris, and to check them with a Geiger counter for contamination,” explained Tanaka, who asked not to be identified by his real name, like all the workers interviewed by America Tonight, for fear of retribution.
For this work, Tanaka was compensated roughly $100 a day.
Workers decontaminate a residential house in Minamisōma. Each building costs around $10,000 to decontaminate. America Tonight
Subcontractors poured into Fukushima Prefecture after the earthquake and tsunami triggered the catastrophic nuclear disaster. After all, there’s plenty of money to be made in the estimated $150-billion cleanup effort. As McNeill put it: “There’s an enormous amount of money being scattered around.”
The resulting network of contractors and subcontractors is labyrinthine, making it almost impossible to track the taxpayer dollars siphoned into the cleanup. Reuters counted 733 companies performing work for the Ministry of Environment in the 10 most contaminated towns and nearby highway.
But it appears that very little of that money ends up in the hands of the people on the ground. Hiroyuku Watanabe, a councilman in Iwaki, a city near Fukushima where many laborers find lodgings, said some earn as little as $60 a day.
“For people in Japan who live like me and work various places, it’s hard to find work that pays $100 a day,” said Tanaka, who has spent most of his life traveling Japan as a laborer. “I get housing, and was able to save more than usual.”
“TEPCO is God. The main contractors are kings, and we are slaves.”
But the risks were also higher. Tanaka was shocked to find radioactive hot spots in the area he worked, marked with tape but never decontaminated. Training and protective gear were also in short supply.
“The training didn’t teach us the dangers of handling radiation, so there were some people who worked with their bare hands,” he said. “They would contaminate not only themselves, but would spread particles to others.”
Subcontracted workers endured worse conditions than those directly hired by TEPCO, Tanaka said. For example, TEPCO employees received charcoal filters, while workers at his subcontracting company only got dust filters, like those you’d buy at a convenience store.
“TEPCO is God,” Tanaka said. “The main contractors are kings, and we are slaves.”
Tanaka was fired after his company’s contract wasn’t renewed. Like many nuclear workers approaching their radiation limit of 50 millisieverts a year, it is unlikely that Tanaka will ever be hired at Fukushima again. He’s since lost his apartment, and is crippled by fatigue.
“I can’t say whether radiation is the cause, but since used-up nuclear workers don’t get any compensation, I’m worried about my future,” he explained. “So some of it could be psychological.”
Top members of the Yamaguchi-gumi, Japan's largest Yakuza organization.Asahi Shimbun/AP
The subcontracting system and high demand for labor that gave rise to nuclear gypsies have been a boon for one group: organized crime.
The Yakuza is one of the largest criminal organizations in the world. Enmeshed in right-wing politics, the Japanese mafia often target low-skill occupations.
“The Yakuza have, historically, been deeply embedded in the structure of the construction industry,” explained Takeshi Katsura, a laborer who also helps workers exploited by the Japanese mafia.
Finding thousands of bodies to fill some of the most undesirable jobs in the developed world, particularly in a country with an aging population and growing labor shortage, is tough the legal way. And many of the estimated 50 Yakuza gangs in Fukushima have leapt to the task of supplying workers to the labor-intensive effort to decontaminate the prefecture.
“To quickly gather 4,000, 5,000 decontamination workers in Fukushima, you need to do it the traditional way,” said Katsura. “Using the Yakuza.”
The decontamination industry is particularly appealing for criminals, because of the extra government-funded $100-a-day in danger pay per worker. And Fukushima laborers in the grip of organized crime are even less likely to receive their fair share.
“The government says it will pay $100 a day, but I initially got $20,” said Sato, a worker who was lured to Fukushima by the government’s promise of extra cash. “The contractors and subcontractors took the remaining $80.”
“It’s the structure that’s evil."
When Sato complained, he was told his contract had changed, and that he now owed money for food and lodging. He later found out that the president of his contracting company was a former leader of the Fukushima branch of a right-wing group.
Sato was lucky. Others who complain and quit like him have faced violent retribution.
“I’ve had workers tell me that they’ve been beat up and been told, ‘I’ll kill you,’” said Katsura. “Threatened with, ‘You know what will happen to you.’”
Bags full of contaminated soil and leaves are gathered at a dump site in Minamisōma.America Tonight
In January, October and November of last year, Japanese gangsters were arrested on charges of illegally recruiting workers for the government-funded cleanup, reported Reuters. In the October case, the recruiters rounded up homeless men at a train station and sent them to work for less than minimum wage. The workers were at the bottom of a complex ladder that led all the way to Obayashi Corp, one of the 20 major contractors heading the decontamination effort, and the second largest construction company in Japan.
Critics say the subcontracting system allows TEPCO to turn a blind eye to these abuses and wash its hands of worker safety.
“It’s the structure that’s evil,” said Katsura. “Because workers are hired through subcontractors, wages are skimmed all along the way, and the worker at the bottom actually doing the work sees their pay go down.”
In an interview with America Tonight, TEPCO spokesman Masayuki Ono acknowledged that the ultimate responsibility for working conditions lay with them.
“If there are labor practices that are occurring that violate the law, there’s a legal process to remedy those situations,” he said. “However, it is our responsibility to improve the working environment inside the plant. We’ve made a lot of progress, but we do aim for an even higher level of improvement.”
But any improvements will be too late for the many workers who feel they no longer have a future after toiling in the contaminants of the Fukushima Daiichi plant and the surrounding countryside.
“When they needed people, they used subcontractors to hire us,” said Tanaka. “When our services were no longer needed, I’m among the victims who are thrown away.”