In a rural area 15 kilometers southwest of the Oi nuclear plant in Fukui Prefecture, a business office displays the signboard of a construction company. But inside, a 67-year-old man wearing a black knit cap and wrapped up in a blanket while watching television indicates that the company is more of a temp staff agency for nuclear power plant work.
“Do you want to know about worker staffing?” he says, as he narrows his eyes and grimaces. “That was lucrative. When I was asked to gather up 10 workers, I called up yakuza and construction dealers.”
His said his work involved “disguised subcontracts.” Under the system, a subcontractor provides temporary staff to a general contractor, and they work under the instructions of the general contractor. The practice is illegal under the Employment Security Law, which is designed to protect the rights of workers and to ensure proper working conditions for them.
But the practice has remained widespread for years at nuclear plants around the nation, according to sources.
The workers, desperate for income, hop from one nuclear plant to another for jobs they know are dangerous. The yakuza groups, seeing certain sources of income drying up, continue to take their cut from the system. And general contractors and the utilities themselves have not taken action because the system supplies a steady source of cheap labor.
On Jan. 12, Fukui and Fukuoka prefectural police arrested the 58-year-old director of a Fukui sales section at Taihei Dengyo Kaisha Ltd., a major power plant work contractor, the 59-year-old president of a subcontractor for Taihei Dengyo, and a 36-year-old former senior official of a sub-subcontractor, whose husband is a crime syndicate leader.
They are suspected of using a man from Kita-Kyushu to work under a disguised subcontract at the Oi nuclear power plant.
Fukui Prefecture, home to 13 reactors at four nuclear power stations, is often dubbed the "main drag of nuclear plants."
But some who have been involved in disguised subcontracts say the illegal system is at the very base of nuclear power supply for the entire nation.
CASE 1: OI
The man in the black knit hat, which couldn’t hide the 5-centimeter scar on his forehead, said he used to belong to a yakuza group affiliated with Yamaguchi-gumi, the largest crime syndicate in Japan.
"Workers immediately flocked to me if I just promised to pay them 10,000 yen ($130) a day. And I took the cost of overhead from their daily wages," he said.
He returned from Kobe to his native Oi six years ago and began sending workers--in groups of 10 to 15 every three months--to the Oi nuclear plant, the Tsuruga nuclear plant in Fukui Prefecture, the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant in Fukushima Prefecture and the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant in Niigata Prefecture.
Most of the jobs involved cleaning and repairing pipes inside the nuclear reactor buildings, where radiation doses were high.
He said the workers became visibly worn out after the first month of work.
"The young ones were paid only 8,000 yen a day and were doing dangerous work. Life was really hard on them," the broker said.
Calls for workers came from local subcontractors that had won orders from electric power companies for tasks at nuclear plants.
When a subcontractor paid daily wages to the broker, he distributed them to the workers after subtracting 3,000 yen per head. He could earn 30,000 yen a day and about 900,000 yen a month if he dispatched 10 workers.
"It's not easy for yakuza to earn money these days," the man said. "With nuclear plants, however, you could make money easily if you simply had a telephone line. I was left with famous amounts of money even after paying ‘royalties’ to my syndicate."
CASE 2: FUKUSHIMA NO. 1
A similar structure with yakuza involvement seems to have been in place at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant, where Japan’s worst nuclear disaster started following the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami on March 11 last year.
"We colleagues often talk about yakuza intervention in the staffing of workers," said a worker at the crippled plant who lives in Fukushima Prefecture. "We've certainly heard more stories about that sort of thing following the March 11 disaster, like, 'That syndicate is affiliated here, and that one there.'"
The worker said he earns 11,000 yen in daily wages plus 5,000 yen in danger allowances, but some of his colleagues from the Kansai region in western Japan receive 30,000-40,000 yen a day.
"Many nuclear plant workers at Fukushima were linked to gangsters in the 1960s and the ’70s," said a former employee of Tokyo Electric Power Co., the operator of the Fukushima No. 1 plant, who once worked at the plant.
Crime syndicates dispatched the workers, and some of them were gangsters themselves, the former employee said. TEPCO and its general contractors issued perfunctory warnings but largely ignored the practice because such workers were always in high demand.
CASE 3: MIHAMA
A 63-year-old man, who lives in Takahama, Fukui Prefecture, said a site supervisor told him three years ago, "Don't bother to come from tomorrow."
He had lost his job at the Mihama nuclear plant in Mihama in the prefecture because a health check showed that his white blood cell count was rising.
He had worked for 15 years at nuclear plants.
Like others, he jumped from one nuclear plant to another when reactors underwent regular inspections, which offered increased opportunities for cleaning and repair jobs.
Aside from his stints at the Mihama plant, the man also worked at the Oi and Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plants through the offices of acquaintances.
He engaged in pipe welding, cleaning and bolt fastening repairs inside nuclear reactor buildings, where the humidity was high and the temperatures exceeded 40 degrees. Annoyed by the constant perspiration at work, he sometimes removed his protective gear and mask.
Once, while he was working inside a reactor containment vessel, where radiation levels were high, a tool ripped a hole in his rubber glove. He fled the vessel in a panic and washed his hands and the skin under his fingernails for 30 minutes.
When he bled from a bruise on his head, he was paid treatment fees, but an industrial accident report was never filed. Blowing his nose increasingly resulted in nosebleeds.
The man said he received between 10,000 and 20,000 yen in daily wages. The largest amount he earned during a year was only 3 million yen.
He received no severance pay nor unemployment allowances after he lost his job. He has looked for other work, but in vain.
THE LARGER PICTURE
Crime syndicates and illegal businesses flock to nuclear plants where workers toil under harsh conditions. But the problem does not stop there.
"The disguised subcontract has thrived at nuclear plants across Japan because the power utilities, which wish to save on personnel expenses, have turned a blind eye to the picture," said Masahiko Yamamoto, a 54-year-old former nuclear plant worker in Tsuruga, Fukui Prefecture, who is engaged in campaigns against nuclear power.
"We have called on our contractors to abide by laws, including severing ties with crime syndicates," said a representative of Kansai Electric Power Co., the operator of the Oi nuclear plant. "We regret very much that a case of noncompliance was exposed. We will repeat our calls to stick to the rules."
The 63-year-old former worker in Takahama spoke in casual manner during the interview, but he raised his tone abruptly when asked how he felt about his career as a nuclear plant worker.
"We, the rank-and-file workers, have been the real suppliers of Japan's power. But I feel differently now. You shouldn't work at nuclear plants. You will be exploited and discarded."
(This article was written by Kazuyuki Ito and Yosuke Akai.)
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