5 Janvier 2016
January 5, 2015
It was the spring of 2015, and a 37-year-old construction company owner in Fukushima Prefecture got a call on his phone from an unknown number.
"Can you use me again?" the person on the other end said, the voice tugging at the man's memory. Ah, that's right. It was a young man who'd worked for him about two years before, doing decontamination work near the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant. The problem was, the worker had only been 17 at the time.
It was July 2013 when the man was arrested on suspicion of violating the Labor Standards Act, which states that it is illegal to assign dangerous work to anyone under the age of 18. Cleaning up a nuclear disaster zone certainly qualified. The then 17-year-old was one of four underage workers -- all aged 16 or 17 -- in the man's cleanup team, eventually bringing the police to his door.
At the time, the man was working for a construction firm owned by his foster father, leading decontamination teams in the field. He looked at his roster of workers, but saw no problems with the ages that went along with the names. The birthdays listed put all the workers safely above 18; they'd been falsified on the orders of the man's foster father. The man himself did not know this, and so was not indicted. His foster father, however, was arrested and found guilty of labor standards violations.
The formerly under-age worker on the phone, now 20, showed no signs he was upset over the events of 2013. The man told the youth that, if he was willing to work hard, he'd give him a shot at the man's firm, founded after the arrests about two years before.
The cleanup effort began in earnest in summer 2012, a little more than a year after the March 2011 triple-meltdown at the nuclear plant. Virtually the entire construction sector in Fukushima Prefecture became involved in the work, starting with major construction firms who actually took the work orders and then fed them into a vast trickle-down pyramid of subcontractors. The man's foster father's firm was one such subcontractor, taking work that had already been subcontracted three or four times already -- a practice that does not officially exist. With these hand-me-down contracts in hand, the foster father's firm recruited workers.
The 37-year-old man planned out the jobs and also spent a lot of time on-site, even in high radiation areas. His dosimeter beeped so relentlessly that it became just another background noise, and he began to ignore it. He regularly took his mask off outside to drink, and walked into the vehicle serving as a break room -- an area that is supposed to be hermetically sealed from the outside air -- without changing out of his protective suit.
The man thought that some members of his team -- the four boys under 18 -- looked a little too young, and though he had doubts about the birthdays listed on the worker roster, he didn't investigate further. If the firm was found employing under-age workers, it would have to report the violation to the contractor above it, which could impact future orders. The man kept his suspicions to himself.
His July 2013 arrest apparently came after one of the boys submitted a complaint to authorities. At the time, the national government was offering regular nuclear cleanup workers per diem wages of between 21,700 yen and 25,000 yen. Once a work order had trickled down from the primary contractor through the layers of subcontractors, however, the workers actually on the ground never saw the full amount. The men in the 37-year-old's cleanup team were being paid less than a third the official wage. It seems the boy who reported the man had grown frustrated with his paycheck.
All the men on the team applied freely for the job. From his detention center cell, the man's foster father wrote him a letter saying, "We have to be very thorough when it comes to (worker) ages. I've learned a lot from this." The man also came to the realization that, as adults, they had to act responsibly.
Across Fukushima Prefecture, some 30,000 people go to work at decontamination sites every day. The companies, always short of workers, as well as the workers themselves have for the most part become numb to the dangers of radiation. Most of the underage workers at the man's foster father's firm said they wanted to stay on even after their employer's arrest. The Japanese Constitution urges caution on youth labor, but the reality on the ground is a far cry from the constitutional ideal.
Child and youth labor has a storied history in Japan. In the Meiji period, groups of child laborers in match and textile factories included kids under the age of 10. From 1911 on, the law was slowly updated to ban employment of children under 12, though loopholes for apprentice nursemaids and other jobs remained. The student mobilization of World War II saw children return to factories in large numbers, churning out weapons and ammunition for the war effort.
All this led to a ban on child exploitation being included in the postwar Constitution, while the minimum employment age was raised to 15 in the 1947 labor standards law, which also forbade dangerous work for anyone under 18.
The 37-year-old man himself joined the workforce as a teenager. His mother died when he was in the first grade, and he never knew his father. After his mother's death, his grandmother took him in and raised him, but she, too, passed away when he was 16. He dropped out of high school after just two months and became a construction worker. Looking around at other people his age spending their time enjoying themselves, he decided that the only way to win in life was with money and qualifications, and he threw himself into work.
In April last year, the man started his own company with seven employees. Among them was the young man who had called him. The 20-year-old, saying he wanted a high salary, went to work in the still evacuated town of Namie. The man told him the radiation was high in Namie, but his young employee said he didn't care. If the youngster was so keen, the man thought, he'd give him the work he wanted, as well as a monthly salary topping 300,000 yen. It was the most he could pay for a young worker.
The man's 17-year-old son quit a vocational school and also went into construction, working at a different firm than his father's. The boy isn't involved in the decontamination, but his company has been subcontracted to do many nuclear cleanup jobs, which worries his father. In the dying days of 2015, the man called up his son and told him he should become a painter. It didn't cost much to get into and he could start his own business relatively quickly. His son said he'd think about it.