Status quo of exposed workers in Fukushima and Japan’s first unified spring labor offensive for nuclear workers Nuke Info Tokyo No. 160

Spring labor offensive for nuclear workers in front of Maeda Corp (Tokyo).
(Photo by Akira Imai)

1. Inauguration and Startup of Radiation-exposed Workers’ Solidarity Network*

Do the readers of this journal know that the operation of a nuclear power plant requires a far greater number of nuclear workers hired by the electric power company’s subcontractors than the company officials sitting in the plant’s control room? In Japan, the plant workers exposed to radiation while working experience extremely harsh conditions, exploited by many companies in the multi-layer subcontractor system, not covered by social safety nets, treated just like disposable products and fired easily without prior notice. They are considered to be the workers suffering from the most severe exploitation and treatment in Japan.

In the wake of the nuclear accident at Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station (FDNPS) in 2011, the clean-up operation and the preparation work for decommissioning of the crippled reactors drew much popular attention. The mass media took up various problems involving nuclear workers, such as sloppy safety management, cheating on their exposure-dose calculations, fake subcontracts, and illegal dispatching of workers. Moreover, they reported some cases in which impoverished people were forced by underground criminal syndicates, “yakuza” to work in the nuclear plant. These cases were not necessarily exceptional cases that occurred in the emergency situation immediately after the nuclear disaster. This dark side of the plant workers’ employment system has continued to exist throughout the 50 years since the start of commercial nuclear power generation in this country. However, the nuclear power industry worked hard to conceal such questionable practices. Recently their maneuvering has gradually slackened and the public have begun to focus their attention on nuclear plant workers. As a result, the darker aspects of nuclear labor have been brought to light and have received a certain amount of exposure.

Meanwhile, radioactive contamination has spread not only within FDNPS but also extensively in eastern Japan. Workers engaged in many kinds of work that previously had no connection with radiation exposure, such as cleaning work, sewage processing, and transport work, are now facing the risk of exposure to radioactive substances. Moreover, the government-organized decontamination work has led to the creation of new industrial sectors based on occupational radiation exposure. Despite this trend, occupational exposure has not necessarily been taken up as a major problem in Japan’s popular movement against nuclear power generation.

Amid this situation, the Radiation-exposed Workers’ Solidarity Network (RWSN) was organized by individuals with a strong awareness of safety and the rights of the FDNPS workers, especially those considered to be exposed workers employed by subcontractors. The individual members held a preparatory meeting in October 2011, and officially established RWSN in November 2012 after they received inquiries from a number of exposed workers on unpaid danger allowances** in decontamination work. Since then, they have been providing workers with full-fledged consultation services on various labor problems and supporting them in labor disputes.

2. Labor disputes involving decontamination workers

The first case tackled by RWSN was a dispute involving a firm undertaking decontamination work on roads and other infrastructure in Naraha Town, Fukushima Prefecture. A worker hired by the firm told RWSN that he got the job through Hello Work (the official job-placement office) on the condition that the daily pay was 10,000 yen and that the company would pay room and board. He allegedly began decontamination work in July 2012. After the monthly wage for July was paid, he was notified by the firm that the government would pay him the danger allowance. But at the same time the company told him that the daily wage would be reduced to 5,500 yen (almost the same level as the minimum wage in Fukushima Prefecture) retroactive to the day when he started work on the job, and that the room and board costs would be deducted from his monthly pay.

The result of this was that the worker’s daily, all-inclusive wage dropped to 12,000 yen, although he was eligible to receive 20,000 yen, the 10,000 yen daily wage and 10,000 yen in danger allowance. This is nothing but the company’s confiscation of the danger allowance. The employer’s unilateral change of working conditions and pay cut without obtaining consent from the worker in accordance with the official labor-management agreement are a violation of the Labor Standards Law. A co-worker also received a smaller wage because more subcontractor companies were illegally involved in his employment.

Four workers who sought support from RWSN joined the Iwaki chapter of the National Union of General Workers with which RWSN is cooperating, and negotiated with their employer, a higher-level subcontractor, and Shimizu Corp., the original contractor. As a result, both sides reached an agreement that the 20,000 yen daily wage would be paid in full, along with the unpaid extra wages. Later, two other co-workers also succeeded in obtaining the unpaid wages.

Up to the point when this labor dispute occurred, most decontamination workers did not know of the system under which the government provides danger allowances to such workers. For this reason, media reports on this labor dispute have greatly contributed to popularization of the danger allowance for decontamination workers, and the number of inquiries received by RWSN from such workers has increased considerably.

The next labor dispute handled by RWSN involved a company undertaking decontamination work in Tamura City, Fukushima Prefecture. A number of workers from the company came to us when our group provided a consultation service on labor problems, medical care and welfare in Iwaki City in the same prefecture in late November 2012, and that was the start of this case. The workers complained about unpaid danger allowances, unpaid extra wages, and also the cost of the health check-ups, just as the workers involved in the case above. In addition, they bitterly complained about the appalling accommodation and meals, poor working equipment, the employer’s refusal to accept applications for workers’ compensation, and violent acts committed by the work site superintendent, among other problems. They also expressed strong indignation against the employer’s inhumane treatment of the workers.

A total of 25 workers from the company joined the Fukushima chapter of the National Union of General Workers and launched a labor dispute against their employer, a second-tier subcontractor, the first-tier subcontractor and the original contractor, Kajima Corp. It took nearly six months to settle the dispute. Consequently, the settlement money, equivalent to the total amount of their unpaid wages was paid to the workers. The employer also agreed to take the procedures for workers’ compensation. Yet the “settlement money” the workers received was not the unpaid danger allowances, despite the fact that their employer officially admitted that he did not pay the allowances.

3. Labor dispute fought by workers engaged in the FDNPS accident clean-up and decommissioning preparations

Some of the FDNPS workers engaged in accident clean-up operations and preparation for decommissioning of the plant have also made use of our consultation service. Many of them were employed by fake subcontractors or unqualified job placement agents that constitute the lowest level of the multi-tier subcontractor system. They had problems with unpaid wages, appalling working conditions, and dismissals resulting from these problems.

A case involving a construction company in Iwaki City, Fukushima Prefecture, was exceptionally malicious. This company was an illegal job placement agent recruiting workers through a website. On the site, it advertised a job opportunity for decontamination and debris clean-up workers, offering daily wages of 15,000 to 30,000 yen, as well as transportation and accommodation. A worker saw this advertisement and drove all the way from Kagoshima in the southern island of Kyushu to Iwaki in his own car. After arriving in Iwaki, he was told that the daily pay was only 12,000 yen, and was forced to sleep on a mattress spread in the corner of a prefabricated warehouse.

Later, he was moved to a “dormitory” which was simply a rented house, and did various jobs, such as construction and debris clean-up inside and outside FDNPS. On working days, he was forced to pay a dormitory fee of 2,000 yen per day, and had to buy gasoline to commute to work. He became short of money and received an advance on his salary. At the beginning, he had to cook his own meals using rice provided by the employer. Later he began receiving boxed meals on workday evenings. Worried about his low wages and snowballing debts, he fled from the dormitory and sought help from the Iwaki chapter of the National Union of General Workers, of which RWSN is a member. He then filed an application with the Iwaki Labor Standards Inspection Office involving unpaid wages.

This construction company is owned by a gangster group and has not been officially registered. On its website, the company openly recruited workers by declaring that “a considerable number of syndicate members and people with criminal records are working at our decontamination work sites.” This company was engaged in questionable businesses for poor people at the same time, forcing them to apply for welfare benefits and then ripping off their subsidies.

Despite the disclosure of the company’s illegal business practices, the company president ignored the Labor Standards Inspection Office’s instructions. Consequently, the fourth-tier subcontractor paid the unpaid wages to the workers on behalf of the company.

RWSN coped with several more cases that originated from our consultation services. Compared with the cases involving decontamination work, the number of cases involving accident clean-up work and preparation for FDNPS decommissioning is far smaller. Clean-up and decommissioning workers came to RWSN to seek our help, but did not seem to have the courage to start labor negotiations with the employers. This may be partly because some of them chose the work with a sense of mission that the accident clean-up operations and reconstruction of the disaster-hit areas was necessary for the country. But a more important reason seems to be that the FDNPS workers are controlled far more strictly, both physically and mentally, than other workers.

4. Distribution of advertising leaflets in Fukushima

Instead of just waiting for troubled workers to come forward, we decided to carry out an active search for problematic cases, and on February 17, 2014 launched a campaign to distribute leaflets about our consultation service in the areas where nuclear workers frequently go, such as J-Village and convenience stores in the surrounding areas. J-Village is a soccer training complex near FDNPS, now serving as an operation base for those battling Japan’s nuclear disaster.

Quite a large number of workers responded to our campaign favorably, receiving the leaflet attached to pocket tissues or a disposable pocket warmer. Some of them expressed surprise, exclaiming, “I didn’t know that this kind of organization existed.” Some others said after reading the leaflet that the problems of poor working, safety and sanitary conditions mentioned in the leaflets also exist in their company’s work sites. One of the workers engaged in traffic control in the village said there is no worker in that area that doesn’t have complaints.
As soon as this campaign came to an end, we received requests for our consultation service from two groups of clean-up workers, and two other groups of decontamination workers. One of the workers was employed by a company constructing welded-type water storage tanks. He claimed that the workers there were forced to do two hours of overtime work both early in the morning and at night in addition to the regular eight-hour workday. He also said they sometimes had to work nearly 13 hours per day.

They were pressured into doing their jobs in a hurry, and the assigned work increased two-fold or three-fold each week. They were not allowed to go to the toilet during working time, and were ordered to excrete and urinate in the Tyvek protective clothing. This extremely difficult situation continued for some time and the workers became exhausted. One day, two of them complained of the excessively heavy work and refused to do the work. In response, the company president announced that they would be fired immediately, and ordered them to leave the dormitory the same day.

Jobs that have a risk of worker exposure to radiation are categorized as dangerous work under the Industrial Safety and Health Law, and it is illegal to force exposed workers to do more than two hours of overtime work per day. Moreover, the employer is required to notify workers of dismissal at least one month in advance. Otherwise, the employer would be charged with violation of Article 20 of the Labor Standards Law. The employer did not calculate the amount of additional pay for overtime work correctly. Among these questionable practices by the employer, the most disgusting one cited by the worker was that the employer treated them just like worms or garbage. In this labor dispute, we are currently demanding payment of the unpaid wages and allowances, as well as discontinuation of illegal practices and the implementation of improved treatment of workers.

5. Unified actions taken in Japan’s first “exposed workers’ spring labor offensive”

After these efforts, we made various kinds of preparations for the “exposed workers’ spring labor offensive” during the February-March period. Based on our consultation service data, information we provided to the workers, records of their labor disputes, and other data, we compiled unified demands concerning accident clean-up work, preparation for the plant’s decommissioning, and decontamination work.

In the morning on March 14, 2014 we visited the head office of TEPCO, the implementing body of the accident clean-up operations, and Maeda Corp., the primary contractor for the decontamination work in Naraha Town, Fukushima Prefecture, and handed our written demands to the two companies. Initially, officials of the two companies refused to accept the demands in front of their head offices, but under pressure from the outcry of around 200 workers, including those fighting labor disputes, the officials eventually agreed to accept the demands.

In the afternoon of the same day, we visited the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, and the Ministry of the Environment to negotiate with officials concerned in an attempt to obtain replies to the demands.

That night, we held a meeting to report on the unified actions taken for the “exposed workers’ spring labor offensive.” About 130 people participated. The guest speaker, the former mayor of Futaba Town, Fukushima Prefecture, Katsutaka Idogawa, told the audience about his experiences. He had once participated in construction and piping work at FDNPS, and had held negotiations concerning safety and treatment of plant workers with TEPCO as town mayor.

It is said that the plant workers’ families and residents of the town where the plant is located decline to comment on radiation damage they suffered before and after the nuclear accident. We, therefore, felt the need to handle these cases delicately and with caution. The “exposed workers’ spring labor offensive” is probably the first of its kind in Japan, and simply holding this campaign itself is a great step forward.

We plan to continue our efforts in Fukushima by offering consultation services to workers engaged in the clean-up, decommissioning preparation and decontamination work, supporting them in labor disputes, and helping them resolve their problems. Through these efforts, we hope we will enhance mutual trust with the workers. At the same time, we will strive to spread anti-nuclear power campaigns and the anti-nuclear power labor movement while raising popular awareness of safety, better labor conditions and the protection of workers’ rights. To this end, we hope many people will extend us their support and join in our activities.

*Radiation-exposed Workers’ Solidarity Network was introduced in Nuke Info Tokyo152
** The danger allowance is paid to decontamination workers as compensation for physical and mental burdens caused by the work.

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