Subcontracted staff at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant are working for as little as 30 percent of the daily rates paid by Tokyo Electric Power Co. on short-term, sometimes illegal contracts.
Nine out of ten of the some 3,000 workers on the ground at Fukushima are employed by the brood of contractors and subcontractors being suckled by the utility.
Conditions for those workers can be far worse than the treatment of TEPCO employees, sources said, with many men facing a stark choice between moderately compensated radiation exposure and unemployment.
TEPCO usually pays contractors a daily wage of about 50,000 yen ($640) per person for jobs at a nuclear power plant. Local construction companies, which are awarded contracts from a TEPCO affiliate or a larger contractor, receive 25,000 to 30,000 yen.
Workers dispatched by staffing companies generally get 15,000 yen to 20,000 yen, sources said.
Despite denials by TEPCO, there are persistent suspicions that many of those workers have been illegally dispatched.
One case involves Build-Up, a midsize construction company in Fukushima Prefecture at the center of a scandal in which workers were ordered to cover their dosimeters with lead plates to keep radiation dose readings low, according to sources.
Twelve workers in their 20s to 70s were engaged in work at the Fukushima No. 1 plant from late November to early December. Papers showed that they were directly hired by Build-Up or its subsidiary, Access Aomori.
In reality, however, eight of them were dispatched by three companies in Aomori, Fukushima and Fukuoka prefectures that were not authorized to act as temporary staffing agencies, the sources said.
“We looked for people who can work at the Fukushima No. 1 plant after receiving a request from a director (of Build-Up),” the operator of one of the companies said.
In at least one case, other companies served as intermediaries for dispatching a worker, the sources said. That could also be in violation of the Employment Security Law.
Labor ministry officials suspect that the workers may have felt added pressure to follow their boss’s instructions to circumvent safety standards because of the precariousness of their employment.
Build-Up removed three workers from the work after they refused to use the lead plates. Those workers had been dispatched illegally, the sources said.
The 15,000 yen to 20,000 yen paid to the bottom-tier workers is better than ordinary construction work, but workers say wages have declined since the immediate aftermath of the Fukushima accident. Conditions have recently been getting tougher as the summer gets hotter, with heatstroke already taking a toll on some workers.
Subcontracted workers are often on shaky contracts compared with employees of TEPCO and major contractors. The staff involved in the Build-Up scandal were only on two-month contracts.
The temporary workers also face losing their employment when their accumulated radiation exposure levels get too high, unlike the employees of major contractors who are often transferred to non-nuclear facilities.
They also appear to be much less informed about the dangers they faced, at least in the immediate aftermath of the disaster.
In April and May, the Diet investigation committee on the Fukushima nuclear disaster sent questionnaires to 5,500 people working at the plant in March 2011 and received 2,415 responses.
Forty-seven percent of TEPCO employees who stayed at the plant on March 11, when the Great East Japan Earthquake struck, said they were told that the reactors could be at risk, but only 5 percent of first-tier contractors’ employees and 2 percent of subcontractors’ workers received similar warnings.
An employee of a direct TEPCO contractor said in the survey: “Workers at the end of the line did not get any information about a station blackout.”
Many workers wrote in the survey they were concerned that they might lose their jobs because of the exposure limits on radiation doses.
A senior official of a general contractor said TEPCO may have paid little attention to the risk of workers being exposed to radiation.
Last spring, a TEPCO official told the general contractor’s employee to take photographs of a reactor building in a high radiation area.
The TEPCO employee was dissatisfied with the resulting photos and demanded that additional shots be taken.
“Our employee would be exposed to more radiation,” the senior official of the general contractor said. “I did not feel there was any concern (from TEPCO) about (the welfare of) our employee.”
In March, three workers were exposed to radiation exceeding 170 millisieverts over a short period under the turbine building of the No. 3 reactor.
Two of the workers were employees of a company in direct contract with TEPCO, but the third victim was from a subcontractor. That arrangement may have been illegal, because it was not made clear who was responsible for the safety of workers from different companies.
In March, a former senior gangster was arrested on suspicion of dispatching his subordinates to the Fukushima No. 1 plant in violation of the temporary staffing services law.
According to industry sources, the importance of the subcontractors’ unskilled workforce in the recovery effort at Fukushima is only increasing. Some employees of TEPCO and its long-time partners who have worked at the plant since the start of the disaster can no longer enter because their total radiation dose now exceeds limits, putting more responsibility on the subcontractors.
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