On March 17, a week after the disastrous earthquake and tsunami that struck the Tohoku region, a notice was posted at a worker recruitment center in Airin, the rundown neighborhood of Osaka's Nishinari Ward where thousands of impoverished day laborers congregate in search of construction and other blue-collar jobs.
As reported in Asahi Geino (May 26), the ad read, "Wanted: drivers for 10-ton trucks in Onagawa, Miyagi Prefecture. Pay: 12,000/day."
But two workers who signed up for the jobs instead found themselves dispatched to work at the damaged nuclear complex in Fukushima Prefecture.
The men first met up with a labor subcontractor in Gifu Prefecture, which ordered them to Fukushima, where they were requested to drive water tankers as part of the effort to cool down the damaged reactors Nos. 5 and 6, for twice the initially offered remuneration. The recruitment center in Osaka first learned of the bait-and-switch when one of the two men telephoned while on route.
"Nothing new about that sort of thing," shrugs a job broker in Osaka. "When the Tsuruga nuclear plant was built in Fukui Prefecture, those who signed up were just told they'd be doing 'construction work' and they'd be paid 20,000 yen per day. Since the money was good, they understood there was probably some risk involved."
A source tells Asahi Geino the current daily remuneration for laborers is three times that of regular day jobs if within the grounds of the reactor complex, and 1.5 times higher if within the wider area now restricted due to high radioactivity.
While safety measures are in place to keep workers' daily exposure to radiation within safe levels, claims for compensation due to sickness from overexposure are unlikely to be paid out.
"When a 29-year-old worker at the Hamaoka plant died of leukemia, his death was recognized in 1994 as being a result of occupational hazards. But when the matter was taken to court, it was learned that the man had not been maintaining his own records of working hours on site," says photojournalist Kenji Higuchi, who describes how the rules are bent. "The subcontractor he worked for was found to have altered the records of his exposure periods after he died. It also appears part of his working times were entered in a different worker's passbook."
According to Weekly Playboy (May 30), brokers were also recruiting nuclear laborers in places other than Nishinari.
"A homeless guy I know in Nagoya was also recruited to work at the reactor," says an elderly worker. "I heard the pay was 50,000 per day, for four hours of work -- same as what they were offering in Nishinari. The guy's already over 70, but I heard the recruiter say, 'The older the better' and 'It suits us even better if (a worker) is homeless.'"
For elderly workers seeking jobs at the recruitment center, the pickings these days have been slim.
"Up to last year, I could take my pick of posted job offerings," said a man in his 70s. "But from this year, if there were any jobs at all, I took them, whatever they were. In the 40 years I've been working here, the economy has never been so bad as right now."
Weekly Playboy's reporter confirmed the postings at the center the day he visited offered only two non-specialized job positions: construction work for 10,000 per day, or 4,869 yen per day as a security guard.
On May 14, the media reported the death of a man in his 60s who'd been working at the No. 4 reactor at the Fukushima nuclear power complex. The cause of death was determined to be heart failure, probably brought on by his working successive 12-hour shifts.
In Shukan Asahi (May 27), a source who knew the deceased tells the magazine that it's fairly common to see men in their 60s laboring at such jobs. "Previously, 55 had been the cutoff age, but with the accident they'll take older workers."
Perhaps reflecting the sense of desperation over the nuclear crisis, working conditions for the men inside the plant appear to be brutal.
"They don't announce it, but on site, workers are collapsing almost daily due to bone fractures or heatstroke," the source tells Shukan Asahi. "It's being hushed up. Spreading the word will just make the subcontractor look bad to Tokyo Electric Power, so nobody says anything. Workers are saying to themselves, 'On-the-job injuries are a matter of self-responsibility.'"© Japan Today