EDITORIAL: New rules needed to ensure payments, safety in decontamination work

November 19, 2012

Many workers engaged in decontamination work in areas affected by the Fukushima nuclear disaster are not receiving a special allowance they are entitled to.

The failure of employers to pay the allowance to workers is, of course, unpardonable. But this is not a simple issue of money. The revelations suggest that callous disregard for the health and safety of the workers is at the root of the problem.

An effective system to prevent such nonpayment needs to be established swiftly. It is also necessary to scrutinize the overall working conditions at the work sites to check whether the required steps to protect the safety of workers, such as measuring the levels of radiation exposure, are properly implemented.

The special work allowance for nuclear cleanup workers was originally introduced under a system that pays such benefits to central government employees who carry out certain kinds of special tasks. Following the Fukushima accident, however, the scope of work eligible for the allowance was widened to cover operations on the premises of nuclear power plants and surrounding areas. The money is meant as compensation for the risk of exposure to radiation and mental anguish.

In light of the system, the Environment Ministry decided to pay a special allowance on top of the regular wages to the workers when it contracted out decontamination work to private companies.

For example, a worker who does cleanup work in the no-entry zone for four hours or longer a day is entitled to an allowance of 10,000 yen (about $125).

The decontamination work contracted out by the government to general contractors is then farmed out to first-tier subcontractors and further to second-tier subcontractors. Companies apparently do not properly recognize and understand the allowance because it doesn’t come with conventional construction work. This has led the companies to siphon off the money instead of paying it to workers.

The Environment Ministry has summoned the general contractors and other companies involved and asked them to ensure the allowance is duly paid to the workers. Even before the nonpayment problem came to light, the ministry asked the contractors to submit wage ledgers and other related documents after the end of the cleanup tasks to check the payments of the allowance to individual workers.

But this measure has proved insufficient to prevent the unscrupulous practice. One company has gone so far as to doctor documents to cover up the nonpayment. It falsified those documents to make them look as if the allowance had been paid and then lowered the amounts of conventional wages to balance it out.

Clearly, the Environment Ministry needs to cooperate with the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare to take additional measures to crack down on the practice. Workers employed for these jobs through the government’s Hello Work job placement centers must be adequately informed about the allowance. Labor standards inspection offices should monitor the work to find nonpayment cases. Greater efforts are needed to publicize the availability of a consultation service for cleanup workers to identify companies that fail to comply with the rule.

If these efforts fail to eliminate cases of nonpayment, the ministry should consider direct payments of the allowance to the workers by the government or general contractors, separate from their wages.

However, this is not the only evidence of wanton disregard for the well-being of workers. Employers have illegally deducted medical checkup expenses from the wages of workers in relation to work at the stricken Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant contracted out by Tokyo Electric Power Co. Other examples that have surfaced include attempts to conceal facts about workers’ exposure to radiation. They include providing no dosimeters to workers or covering dosimeters with lead plates to lower the readings.

It must be fully recognized and understood by all parties concerned that there can be no reconstruction of nuclear disaster-hit areas if the health and safety of workers involved is slighted.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Nov. 18

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