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Cheated all the way

April 7, 2016

Cheated every step of the way: a raw deal from subcontractors




April 7, 2016 at 11:20 JST

Cheated all the way

Editor's note: This is the last installment of a three-part series on conditions that contract workers face at the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

* * *

It's a dirty job, but somebody's gotta do it.

And that sums up what contract workers are facing, having signed up for jobs to clean up the wrecked Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

These men are positioned near the bottom of a pyramid of a multilayered hiring system, and get shunted off to dangerous work on the ground--often without due compensation.

One man who quit working at the plant last October was simply fed up with being shortchanged, especially as the work he did was potentially hazardous to his health.

“My pay was doubly skimmed off,” said the 27-year-old, who is from Iwaki in the prefecture.

The man's case seems to be anything but exceptional because of a hiring system at the plant in which layers of subcontractors often skim off their shares as they assign work to companies below them.

The man signed on with a cleaning company in late 2012 to do decontamination work in Naraha, a stricken town near the plant. There was no written contract for his employment, just a verbal arrangement.

Then in March 2014, the cleaning company referred him to a "better-paying job" at the plant and asked him to sign a contract with a local waterworks company for the assignment.

His written contract with the waterworks company stated that his daily wage would be 15,500 yen ($137).

But the cleaning company, from which the man received his pay for work performed on behalf of the waterworks firm, told him that he would actually get 2,500 yen less than promised. It cited “miscellaneous expenses.”

“Our company cannot continue to operate without funds,” said an official with the cleaning company by way of explaining the discrepancy.

The cleaning company took possession of the man's bank passbook and seal, and withdrew all the money the waterworks company paid into his bank account.

The cleaning company handed him a monthly salary in cash that was calculated on the basis of 13,000 yen per day.

He was also given two payslips: one stating a salary based on a daily wage of 15,500 yen and the other for 13,000 yen.

After working at the plant for 18 months or so, the man learned that he was being gypped more than he had realized. What the waterworks company actually paid to the cleaning company as his monthly salary was computed on the basis of a daily wage of 20,000 yen.

When he confronted the cleaning company, an official was evasive.

“It was a referral fee,” the official said of the gap. “We will raise your salary.”

Growing distrustful, the man quit the cleaning company in October.

In an interview with The Asahi Shimbun, a female representative at the cleaning company said it had never engaged in fraudulent activities.

“It is true that we kept his bank passbook,” she said. “We did it to withdraw money on his behalf since he could not go to the bank on pay day due to work.”

Plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. announced it was doubling hazard pay to 20,000 yen a day in November 2013 to help bolster morale among workers and secure manpower.

The problem is that TEPCO pays the contractors directly, so whether the money actually trickles down to subcontractors--and contract workers they employ--is a separate issue.

In the case of the Iwaki man, his payslip prepared by the waterworks company showed 7,000 yen in hazard pay out of the daily wage of 15,500 yen.

The hand-written slip created by the cleaning company, however, did not have an entry for danger allowance.

Still, the man was involved in work that carried radiation risks, and, in his opinion, with less than adequate protection.

His job at the plant was to install fire hydrants. Radiation readings on the dosimeters that workers were required to carry climbed as his work progressed because the water pipes for hydrants are extended toward the reactor buildings.

Although technicians working near the reactor buildings donned lead vests to shield themselves from radiation, the man had to make do with only protective suits.

On one occasion, his dosimeter started beeping loudly as he approached a reactor building. “Flee!” his boss shouted.

“My work was dangerous,” said the man. “I find it totally unacceptable that my pay was comparable to the money paid for a cleanup assignment.”

Tsuguo Hirota, a lawyer from Fukushima Prefecture who has been involved in lawsuits over back pay of hazard and other allowances for contract workers, said the multitiered hiring system at the plant is at the heart of the problem.

“If the system to repeatedly outsource work to subcontractors were not altered, the practice of skimming off (workers' salaries) would still be continuing,” he said.

In one case, he said a leading construction company paid a daily wage of 43,000 yen per employee. But all a worker at a third-tier subcontractor ended up with was 11,500 yen.

On the other hand, the skimming of salaries is no longer a widespread practice in the cleanup operation commissioned by the Environment Ministry, although it was the case in the immediate aftermath of the 2011 triple meltdown.

When the ministry places an order with a contractor, its deal includes a clause requiring that designated hazard pay must be paid to workers hired by subcontractors.

But no similar arrangements have been made at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

Other problems inherent in a multilayered hiring system center on ultimate responsibility for ensuring the safety of contract workers at the plant and tracking their accumulative radiation exposure over a long period.

When the Iwaki man worked at the plant, he received instructions from the waterworks company, a third-tier subcontractor, on how to perform his tasks. But a second-tier subcontractor and the cleaning company also told him how to do his job, which could have been unlawful.

According to a TEPCO survey last autumn, 14.2 percent of respondents, or 465 workers, said the company that pays their wages is different from the one that gives direction on how to do the job.

Takeshi Katsura, a staff member of the Fukushima nuclear power plant workers’ consultation center, a private group in Iwaki, urged subcontractors to have a greater sense of responsibility for their workers.

“Even five years after the accident, some are working on a mere verbal arrangement,” he said. “A company that concluded a contract with workers should responsibly oversee their wages, safety, social security programs and other work-related matters.”




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