(NaturalNews) Police investigations have uncovered a new problem with Japan's error-ridden effort to clean up contamination from the Fukushima disaster: criminal gangs are recruiting homeless people to work in radiation zones, then cheating them out of their pay.
In 2011, a massive earthquake and tsunami triggered multiple meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in northern Japan, spreading radiation across an area larger than Hong Kong. The government is now in the midst of a $35 billion effort to clean up the fallout, but the program is significantly behind schedule. The Ministry of Environment recently announced that the cleanup, originally scheduled for completion in March 2014, will take another two to three years. This may mean that, by the project's end, more than 60,000 people will have been unable to return to their homes for a total of six years.
Recruited at train stations
According to police, members of Japan's three largest criminal organizations - Yamaguchi-gumi, Sumiyoshi-kai and Inagawa-kai - have been recruiting homeless men in locations such as train stations across northern Japan, paying recruiters a bounty of $100 per worker recruited. This $100 comes from the hazard pay that is supposed to go directly to the worker.
In a recent case, all the workers ended up clearing out radioactive soil and debris in Fukushima city, in a project overseen by Obayashi, Japan's second-biggest construction firm. Although Obayashi was ultimately responsible for the project, the homeless men were distanced from the company by three layers of subcontractors.
An investigation revealed that only a third of the funds that Obayashi's top contractor designated for wages were actually paid to the homeless recruits. In addition, workers had charges for food and housing deducted directly from their paychecks. After these deductions, workers made only about $6.00 an hour, just below the minimum wage of $6.50 per hour.
In fact, deductions for food and lodging were so steep that many of the workers actually ended up in debt.
"Many homeless people are just put into dormitories, and the fees for lodging and food are automatically docked from their wages," said Yasuhiro Aoki, a Baptist pastor and homeless advocate. "Then at the end of the month, they're left with no pay at all."
Many of the companies involved attribute the problem to a shortage of workers.
"If you don't get involved [with gangs], you're not going to get enough workers," said Kenichi Sayama, general manager of Fujisai Couken, a company which was recently fined $5,000 for paying homeless workers less than they were entitled to. "The construction industry is 90 percent run by gangs."
Lack of oversight
The major factors producing these shady labor practices are the enormous number of companies involved in the Fukushima cleanup, combined with an almost complete lack of oversight. A total of 20 major contractors are involved in the cleanup, but when subcontractors are included the number of companies involved leaps to 733.
In the interest of expediting the cleanup, the government passed a law in 2011 loosening regulations on companies bidding for Fukushima contracts. According to Reuters, this has produced a situation wherein at least 56 contractors are at work that would never have been approved for conventional public works projects under Japanese law. Five further companies had provided no identifying information at all, making it impossible to confirm that they actually exist.
"There are many unknown entities getting involved in decontamination projects," said lawyer and professor Takayoshi Igarashi of Hosei University. "There needs to be a thorough check on what companies are working on what, and when. I think it's probably completely lawless if the top contractors are not thoroughly checking."