Most of the reliable reporting about the clean-up of the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant since it suffered three meltdowns in March 2011 has been from on-site workers. Even when articles appear in major media outlets about the situation at the crippled reactor, it’s usually presented through the anonymous or pseudonymous firsthand experiences of the men on the front lines.
Some have become famous. The public would not know much about the situation without Kazuto Tatsuta’s manga series, “Ichiefu” (or “1F” — shorthand for “Fukushima No. 1”), the writings of former letter carrier and cleanup worker Minoru Ikeda, or the books and tweets of a man known as “Happy” who has been working as an employee at the plant.
Because these individuals directly address what they and their colleagues have gone through on a daily basis, the work they do has been de-romanticized. It’s not as heroic as initial foreign media reports made it out to be. If anything, it’s tedious and uncomplicated.
Workers are concerned about those matters that all blue-collar laborers worry about — pay and benefits — which isn’t to suggest they don’t think about the possible health risks of radiation exposure. Last October, Ikeda talked to the comedy duo-cum-nuclear power reporters Oshidori Mako & Ken on the web channel Jiyu-na Radio about potential false reports on radiation levels around Fukushima, although also touching on health issues that have not been reported by the mainstream media. His main point was that serious illnesses may not manifest themselves until years after workers quit the site and thus no longer qualify for worker’s compensation. In other words, the workers understand the risk. They just want to be fairly compensated for it.
In that regard, one of the most common gripes from on-site reporters is the “hazard compensation” (kiken teate) workers are supposed to receive. Recently, Tokyo Electric Power Company Holdings Inc. (Tepco), which is both responsible for the accident and in charge of the cleanup, announced a reduction in outlay associated with the hazard compensation, which is paid as a supplement to wages. This compensation can add as much as ¥20,000 a day to a worker’s pay, but now that Tepco says radiation levels have dropped, they will no longer provide the compensation, or, at least, not as much as they have been paying.
A special report in the Jan. 22 Tokyo Shimbun attempted to explain how this change will affect workers and the work itself. In March 2016, Tepco divided the work area into three zones: red, for high radiation levels; yellow, for some radioactivity; and green, for areas that had no appreciable radioactivity. Workers interviewed by Tokyo Shimbun say they’ve never liked this system because they feel it “has no meaning.” Rubble from the red zone is routinely transferred to the green zone, where heavy machinery kicks up a lot of dust, so there’s no physical delineation between zones when it comes to radiation levels. On the ground, this reality is addressed by subcontractors who make their employees in the green zone — which constitutes 95 percent of the work site — wear extra protective gear, even though Tepco doesn’t require it.
But the workers’ main gripe about the zone system is that most of them ended up being paid less and, as on-site workers have often explained, they weren’t getting paid as much as people thought they were. Contractors advertise high wages to attract workers, but then subtract things like room and board, utility fees, clothing and equipment. And it’s been known for years that the hazard compensation was more or less a racket gamed by the contractors standing between Tepco, which distributes the compensation, and the workers, who are supposed to be the beneficiaries. There can be up to six layers of contractors between Tepco and a worker, and each layer may take a cut of the compensation. In 2014, four workers sued Tepco for ¥62 million, saying they worked at the site but received none of the promised hazard compensation.
That situation still seems to be in play, according to Tokyo Shimbun. Several subcontractors told the newspaper they receive the compensation for their workers not from Tepco directly but from the contractor that hired them, and in most cases the compensation has been reduced, sometimes by more than half. One subcontractor said that a company above them actually apologized for the paucity of the compensation they were handing down because their “revenues had decreased.” The man known as Happy told Tokyo Shimbun that Tepco is ordering less work at the site, which means existing subcontractors may cut wages in order to compete for these dwindling jobs. Some contractors have even invested in the robots that are used to inspect the reactor, because they want the work to continue without interruption.
It was common practice to rotate out workers toiling in the highly radioactive areas regularly and quickly and then re-assign them to low-radiation areas. After some time they may have been rotated back into the high-radiation area, where pay is more. The man known as Happy says this sort of system now seems to be on the way out, and that makes sense if radiation is actually decreasing. However, he’s afraid that if there is another emergency that requires a sudden influx of workers, they won’t be available.
Tepco is obviously thinking of its bottom line, and the man known as Happy thinks the work should be managed by the government, which is contributing tax money to the cleanup. However, it seems only the Japan Communist Party is reading the dispatches from the plant. Last May, Japanese Communist Party lawmaker Taku Yamazoe questioned Tepco President Naomi Hirose about the hazard compensation in the Diet, and why the structure of payments to workers wasn’t clear.
Hirose said that while his company intends that the money goes to workers, he cannot say for sure that is the case because of the circumstances surrounding Tepco’s relationships with contractors. With work on the wane, it seems unlikely that those workers will see any of the money that’s owed to them, retroactively or otherwise.