Criminal organizations are engaging in fraudulent practices amid a labor shortage and lax background checks by employers to pocket some of the trillions of yen from publicly funded cleanup work in nuclear disaster-stricken Fukushima Prefecture.
On March 5, the Yamagata District Court handed down a suspended eight-month prison term to a 40-year-old former senior member of a yakuza gang.
The man, a Yamagata Prefecture resident, was charged with dispatching seven day laborers to decontamination operations in Date, Fukushima Prefecture, between November last year and January without a staffing agency license.
“The Yamagata case is just the 'tip of the iceberg,' ” said a Yamagata prefectural police official, asserting that the involvement of yakuza gangs in the decontamination work is widespread.
In the Yamagata case, although the court acknowledged that the convicted man's actions are a “malicious crime,” it gave him a suspended sentence on the grounds that he quit his criminal organization after the case surfaced.
When the accused was asked in court if he is aware that the decontamination work is funded by taxpayers’ money, he said, “Yes, vaguely.”
According to prefectural police, the accused hit on the idea of cashing in on the extensive cleanup operations under way in Fukushima Prefecture in last November.
The central government expects to spend trillions of yen over several years to decontaminate communities that were polluted with radioactive materials after the crisis unfolded at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in March 2011.
The accused told police that he hired the men to work for a company based in Yamagata Prefecture that, as a third subcontractor, was contracted for a project commissioned by the Date city government.
“I expected that background checks would be lax because decontamination operations require large amounts of manpower,” he said. “I attempted to expand my business (by profiting from the work).”
The man approached an acquaintance in the construction industry to line up unemployed workers eager for work.
He offered to pay 12,000 yen ($120) a day for a “simple job,” and at least seven workers came forward.
The man received wages for the seven from the subcontractor, and paid them after siphoning off between 100,000 yen and 200,000 yen.
Prosecutors said in court that he gave a cut to the criminal gang he belonged to at the time. The yakuza group is the largest in Yamagata Prefecture, with about 40 members.
At least one of the seven workers suspected that the man had a connection with the yakuza, according to police investigators.
The president of the third subcontractor, who became acquainted with the accused more than 10 years ago, told police that he did not question the gangster about his occupation although he suspected he was a gangster.
The accused was charged with violating the worker dispatch law, which carries a maximum one-year prison term or a 1 million yen fine.
But there are many cases such as his where the convicted person receives a suspended sentence.
“The law was set without anticipating the involvement of gangsters, so sentences tend to be light,” said a senior official with the Yamagata prefectural police.
The convicted man has refused to speak to The Asahi Shimbun despite repeated requests for an interview.
INVOLVEMENT OF CRIMINAL ORGANIZATIONS WIDESPREAD
Some workers in the cleanup operations admitted that they suspected yakuza members' involvement when The Asahi Shimbun interviewed them about allegations of slipshod cleanup work and intermediary exploitation.
But they have remained silent because of fears of retribution.
In the cleanup effort in Iitate, Fukushima Prefecture, an individual working for a third subcontractor heard a senior official with a second subcontractor speaking of his background.
“I am in that line of business,” the man quoted him as saying, suggesting he had ties to the yakuza. “I go and make contributions (to the gang) every week.”
The gangster proudly spoke of his arrest record like it was a badge of honor, according to the individual.
A subcontractor in Iwaki, Fukushima Prefecture, said that an official with another company pressured him to provide jobs by pointing out his affiliation with an underground criminal organization.
In Date, a man who worked in a separate cleanup operation said that his supervisor, who identified himself as a former gangster, threatened him and told him to follow instructions.
An official with another subcontractor said it is so short-handed that it will not be able to come up with enough workers if it must check prospective workers’ backgrounds.
There are tens of thousands of subcontractors involved in cleanup programs awarded to general contractors as primary contracts by the Environment Ministry and local governments.
Day laborers are obtained for their efforts through conventional hiring practices in the construction industry, where small subcontractors across the nation do the recruiting.
However, if subcontractors send their laborers to the work site in the same fashion that temporary workers are dispatched by staffing agencies, that is illegal.
Subcontractors are required to provide their own equipment and oversee the safety of their workers, in contrast to a temporary work force that comes under the supervision of a client company, like their regular employees.
Layers of subcontractors often make it more difficult for law enforcement authorities to uncover nefarious activities.
The general contractor that was awarded the primary contract in the Yamagata case refused to discuss the former gang official who dispatched the seven day laborers, saying it has nothing to do with individual contracts.
Local governments are ill-equipped to deal with the issue.
“We had no knowledge of the second and third subcontractors,” said an official with the Date city government. “The name of the third subcontractor is not familiar.”
An official wrestling with the matter at the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare admitted the difficulty of weeding out involvement by criminal organizations.
“What we can do to confirm the background of prospective workers is limited,” the official said. “Police should do the job.”
The official also acknowledged the lack of enthusiasm in recent months to preventing a recurrence of such illicit activities.
Tomohiko Suzuki, a freelance journalist who investigated the connection between workers at nuclear facilities and criminal organizations, said the direct hiring of workers is the key to keeping out criminal organizations.
“Even if it is getting harder for second and third subcontractors to recruit people, they must make sure all their workers are employed directly,” he said. “Otherwise, it will be impossible to keep out gang members.”
(This article was written by Sachi Matsumoto, Momoko Jingu and Tamiyuki Kihara.)
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