Heavier seasonal snowfall than usual is disrupting cleanup and decontamination efforts around the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, forcing some subcontractors to illegally lay off workers while the work is suspended.
The labor ministry says it will investigate the practice of laying off these workers without proper notice or payment of wages.
In mid-January, most of Fukushima Prefecture experienced severe snowfall. Fukushima city recorded 18 centimeters of snow on Jan. 14 and the accumulation measured 41 cm five days later, according to the Fukushima Local Meteorological Observatory. The average snow depth around mid-January is 5 cm.
The Environment Ministry started decontamination efforts in four municipalities last summer and hopes the work for this fiscal year, worth 34.2 billion yen ($378 million), will be concluded by the end of March. But the schedule could be delayed due to the weather.
The Environment Ministry and local governments said most of the work has been disrupted in Tamura city, Iitate village and Kawauchi village among the four municipalities. In Naraha town, a relatively small amount of snow recorded there only forced the disruption of four days of work, officials said.
The ministry and local governments said workers continue hauling bags of potentially radioactive soil, branches and leaves collected through decontamination work, but it is difficult for crews to clear the snow and collect more debris in the mountains. Residential areas have many places where snow has frozen and turned to ice, and water used for cleaning would also collect and freeze.
A full resumption of operations is projected to begin in March or even later, depending on the weather.
Under the harsh winter conditions, some subcontractors have already let workers go.
The Labor Standards Law stipulates that employers must inform employees of their dismissal at least 30 days in advance or must pay them the equivalent of at least 30 days of their average wages.
However, the companies--which cannot receive enough payments to cover the labor costs from their general contractors while the operations are suspended--violated the law. And they are believed to be planning to rehire the workers when the cleanup and decontamination effort is restarted.
A worker in his 60s said when he submitted his request for payment on Jan. 21, he was told that his employment would be discontinued because no work could be done due to the snow. He said the firm told him it would recruit workers again, after the snow melts. He said about 60 people lost their jobs without any compensation.
In the case of another worker in his 50s, he said the manager at the subcontractor told dozens of employees on Jan. 21 that their work would conclude at the end of the month, and the firm wanted them to return when the operation resumes in March. He said there was nothing said on 30 days of wages to be paid.
The Environment Ministry isn't saying much on the worker complaints.
“We are closely watching the effects of the snow, but we have yet to acknowledge there is a wage problem,” a ministry official said.
The general contractors involved in the decontamination work said they do not comment on individual cases.
(This article was written by Toshio Tada and Miki Aoki.)
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