TOKYO - The Fukushima disaster has thrown up the first opportunity in decades to bring justice to thousands of unskilled workers who risk radioactive contamination to keep Japan’s nuclear power plants running.
"Fukushima has created public awareness on a section of nuclear workers castigated as ‘radiation- exposed people’ but forming the dark underbelly of an industry that depends on them," says Minoru Nasu, spokesperson for the Japan Day Labourers Union.
Nasu, a long-time labour activist, says that while nuclear industry relies heavily on unskilled workers it has left it to thuggish subcontractors to marshal them as daily wagers.
The common practice for the past several decades can best be described as "human auctioning," Nasu told IPS. Labourers gather at the crack of dawn at designated places such as public parks to be picked up by toughs who take them to the nuclear plants.
According to figures available with the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, Japan’s regulator, of the 80,0000-odd workers at Japan’s 18 commercial nuclear power plants, 80 percent are contract workers. At the Fukushima plant, 89 percent of the 10,000 workers in 2010 were on contract.
The men are given contracts to do unskilled, dangerous work inside nuclear plants for months together. There are no guarantees in the event of an accident, or long-term health insurance against such diseases as leukaemia or other forms of cancer which may surface years after exposure to radiation.
"When their work is completed, they are expected to simply disappear. Nobody cares about them," said Nasu.
The story of former nuclear plant worker Seizi Saito, 71, who took the rare step of speaking out for a change, is illustrative.
A plumber, Saito worked 15 tumultuous years at the Tsuruga nuclear plant in Fukui prefecture, western Japan, repairing leaks in cooling pipes.
"Work conditions at the plant were frightening, demanding and dangerous. But, the worst aspect was the lack of protection for workers. We were sitting rabbits for unscrupulous authorities," he told a meeting of supporters last week.
Saito, a thyroid cancer survivor, told the large gathering, that included labourers and anti-nuclear activists, that specialised unions were needed to take care of day labourers doing cleaning work at nuclear plants.
The gathering agreed that the current system was too deeply entrenched for the workers to have any hope of salvation in the near future.
Mikiko Watanabe from the Citizen’s Nuclear Information Centre, a leading research organisation that counsels security guards at the Fukushima nuclear plant, said one problem is that the workers are too afraid to speak out.
"They are afraid of losing their jobs and also of facing discrimination in a society that looks down on radiations victims," Watanabe told IPS. Such fears, she said, made it easier for subcontractors to exploit workers and ignore their rights.
Yet, as nuclear plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO) struggles to contain the Fukushima meltdown, activists see hope for unskilled nuclear workers.
For one thing, thousands of people have had to be evacuated from residential areas surrounding Fukushima’s damaged reactors, turning public opinion against nuclear power and the lax way in which nuclear plants labour is handled.
While most day workers were also evacuated from Fukushima after the Mar. 11 earthquake and tsunami, which destroyed several of the plant’s reactors, many have had to be brought back for cleanup operations at higher wages.
Over the past two weeks, TEPCO’s woes have increased with four more subcontracted workers exposed to radiation from contaminated water overflow.
Saito says it was an accident at the Tsuruga nuclear plant in 1981 when contaminated water gushed out, exposing several workers to radiation, that woke him up to the realities.
The government ordered the reactor at Tsuruga closed, leaving 1,500 subcontracted workers like him suddenly without jobs. "That's when I decided to start a union and speak out."
But Saito’s union did not last long mainly because unskilled workers were not able to handle management issues.
Yet, Saito's failed activism has drawn new support recently as it marked the first national attempt at gathering vulnerable workers together and making a stand.
Mitsuo Nakamura, head of the Corporate Workers Union representing day labourers, explains that it is an opportunity to earn money that attracts people to take the risks.
"The day wages in the nuclear industry are higher than what construction workers earn. This is a draw especially for the older men who cannot find other jobs," he said.
Nakamura predicts a rapid decline in the number of workers willing to take unacceptable risks, following public exposure of the working conditions at Fukushima.
News reports say that day labourers at Fukushima are being offered as much as 300 dollars per day. That may explain why most of the workers who went to help stabilise the plant have not returned.
"The nuclear industry has no future without these workers who play a crucial part in the operations," said Nakamura.