Recent media reports − including a detailed Reuters investigation − have detailed the difficult and sometimes dangerous situation faced by decontamination and decommissioning workers within and beyond the Fukushima Daiichi plant.
Some of the problems arise from the labyrinth of contractors and subcontractors employing a total of about 6,000 people. An estimated 50,000 workers have been involved in the decontamination work since March 2011, and many thousands more will be required in coming years and decades. TEPCO says it has been unable to monitor subcontractors fully. There has been a proliferation of small firms − around 800 companies are active inside the Fukushima plant and hundreds more outside the plant. Legislation regarding Fukushima decontamination work, approved in August 2011, relaxed previous rules and thus contractors have not been required to disclose information on management or undergo screening. Inexperienced companies rushed to bid for contracts and then turned to brokers to round up workers.
Nearly 70% of the clean-up companies surveyed in the first half of 2013 had broken labour regulations, according to a labour ministry report in July. The ministry's Fukushima office received 567 complaints related to working conditions in the decontamination zone in the 12 months year to March 2013; the ministry issued 10 warnings, but no firm was penalised.
For the thousands of non-TEPCO decontamination workers hired by subcontractors, the lure of earning decent money in return for dangerous work has proved an illusion. Once money for accommodation has been subtracted, workers are typically left with a few thousand yen each day (1000 yen = US$10). In some cases, employers withhold danger money.
Workers interviewed by Reuters said wages usually average around US$12 an hour. With poor wages and conditions, there is a deepening shortage of workers, with about 25% more openings than applicants for jobs in Fukushima Prefecture. Seven hundred TEPCO employees have left the company in the past year alone.
Labour brokers have helped to fill the gap, recruiting people whose lives have reached a dead end or who have trouble finding a job outside the disaster zone. This continues the long-standing pattern of cheap labour from itinerant workers known as 'nuclear gypsies'. "Working conditions in the nuclear industry have always been bad," Saburo Murata, deputy director of Osaka's Hannan Chuo Hospital, told Reuters. "Problems with money, outsourced recruitment, lack of proper health insurance − these have existed for decades."
Yousuke Minaguchi, a lawyer who has represented Fukushima workers, says the Japanese government has turned a blind eye to worker exploitation problems: "On the surface, they say it is illegal. But in reality they don't want to do anything. By not punishing anyone, they can keep using a lot of workers cheaply."
The situation has been exploited by yakuza − organised crime syndicates − which have run labour rackets for generations. Nearly 50 gangs, with 1,050 members, operate in Fukushima Prefecture.
Many workers are scared to draw attention to their exploitation for fear of being blacklisted. "Major contractors that run this system think that workers will always be afraid to talk because they are scared to lose their jobs," said Tetsuya Hayashi, a former decontamination worker. "But Japan can't continue to ignore this problem forever."
In some cases, Reuters reported, brokers have 'bought' workers by paying off their debts − the workers are then forced to work for low wages until they pay off their brokers, under conditions that make it hard for them to speak out against abuses.
Yukiteru Naka, a retired General Electric engineer who helped build some of Fukushima Daiichi's reactors, told The Guardian that in the long term, TEPCO will struggle to find enough people with specialist knowledge to see decommissioning through to the end. "There aren't enough trained people at Fukushima Daiichi even now," he said. "For TEPCO, money is the top priority – nuclear technology and safety come second and third. That's why the accident happened. The management insists on keeping the company going. They think about shareholders, bank lenders and the government, but not the people of Fukushima."
Between March 2011 and July 2013, 138 Fukushima workers reached the 100 millisievert (mSv) threshold and thus could no longer be involved in work exposing them to radiation; another 331 had been exposed to between 75 mSv and 100 mSv, meaning their days at the plant are numbered.
Former decontamination worker Watanabe Kai said: "Every penny the company spends in Fukushima is a loss. So the mentality is to save as much as possible, not to ensure good conditions and safety for workers." Justin McCurry and David McNeill note that: "TEPCO's astonishing penny-pinching became evident during the summer of 2013, when the company revealed it was relying on a skeleton crew to monitor a huge plantation of 1,000-ton makeshift water tanks for leaks. Instead of installing gauges, engineers were checking 1,000 tanks visually by standing on top of them."[4,5]
"I'm particularly worried about depression and alcoholism" among decontamination workers said Tanigawa Takeshi, a professor in the department of public health at Ehime University in western Japan. "I've seen high levels of physical distress and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder."
In early November, TEPCO announced that it would implement measures to improve the working environment, including wage increases and improvements to on-site facilities including break rooms, catering, cell phone communications and transportation. Too little, too late?
 Antoni Slodkowski and Mari Saito, 25 Oct 2013, 'Special Report - Help wanted in Fukushima: Low pay, high risks and gangsters', http://uk.reuters.com/article/2013/10/25/uk-fukushima-workers-specialrep...
 28 Oct 2013, 'Japanese nuclear watchdog tells Fukushima boss to stop messing up', www.morningstaronline.co.uk/a-2a34-Japanese-nuclear-watchdog-tells-Fukus...
 Justin McCurry, 16 Oct 2013, 'Plummeting morale at Fukushima Daiichi as nuclear cleanup takes its toll', www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/oct/15/fukushima-nuclear-power-plan...
 Justin McCurry and David McNeill, "Japan's Cut-Price Nuclear Cleanup: TEPCO woes continue amid human error, plummeting morale and worker exodus," The Asia-Pacific Journal, Vol. 11, Issue 43, No. 2, 28 October 2013, www.japanfocus.org/-Justin-McCurry/4017
 Mari Yamaguchi, 8 Nov 2013, 'Workers Speak Out About Flawed Fukushima Water Tanks', www.chem.info/news/2013/11/workers-speak-out-about-flawed-fukushima-wate...
 WNN, 8 Nov 2013, 'Tepco seeks to improve worker welfare', www.world-nuclear-news.org/RS-Tepco-looks-to-site-conditions-0811137.html
(Written by Nuclear Monitor editor Jim Green.)