Far removed from the spotlight, layers deep in contracts paid for by Japanese taxpayer money, subcontractors hired to help clean up the largest radioactive disaster in Japanese history have taken to rounding up homeless men with the assistance of the Japanese mafia, and paying them less than minimum wage to carry out the potentially deadly labor.
Clean-up of Fukushima after the 2011 tsunami that damaged a nuclear reactor and set off a debate over the safety of nuclear energy has been arduous at best, prone to delays and lacking in oversight. In a new report out on Monday, Reuters revealed that within the $35 billion web of government contracts some of the largest construction companies in Japan remain blissfully unaware of what their subcontractors are doing. This includes in Sendai, the largest city in the disaster zone, hiring homeless men to aid in the clean-up, “removing topsoil, cutting grass and scrubbing down houses,” for less than minimum wage.
“In one case, a 55-year-old homeless man reported being paid the equivalent of $10 for a full month of work at Shuto,” Reuters writes. “The worker’s paystub, reviewed by Reuters, showed charges for food, accommodation and laundry were docked from his monthly pay equivalent to about $1,500, leaving him with $10 at the end of the August.”
Much of this shadowy recruitment is happening with the assistance of the Yakuza — the Japanese criminal syndicate — which has drawn the attention of Japanese police:
In January, October and November, Japanese gangsters were arrested on charges of infiltrating construction giant Obayashi Corp’s network of decontamination subcontractors and illegally sending workers to the government-funded project.
In the October case, homeless men were rounded up at Sendai’s train station by Sasa, then put to work clearing radioactive soil and debris in Fukushima City for less than minimum wage, according to police and accounts of those involved. The men reported up through a chain of three other companies to Obayashi, Japan’s second-largest construction company.
According to Reuters, at least “56 subcontractors listed on environment ministry contracts worth a total of $2.5 billion in the most radiated areas of Fukushima … would have been barred from traditional public works because they had not been vetted by the construction ministry.” At least five of those firms were unable to be located outside of their subcontracting paperwork.
Even with the assistance of the homeless population, cleanup is still taking far longer than originally predicted. “The Ministry of Environment announced on Thursday that work on the most contaminated sites would take two to three years longer than the original March 2014 deadline,” Reuters writes. “That means many of the more than 60,000 who lived in the area before the disaster will remain unable to return home until six years after the disaster.”
One homeless man Reuters spoke to said it was easier to live on the street than work on clean-up efforts, due to the exorbitant amount that the company he worked for charged him for food and lodging. “We’re an easy target for recruiters,” Shizuya Nishiyama told Reuters’ reporters. “We turn up here with all our bags, wheeling them around and we’re easy to spot. They say to us, are you looking for work? Are you hungry? And if we haven’t eaten, they offer to find us a job.” This sort of exploitation is a far cry from the stories from the Fukushima region in the days after the earthquake and tsunami, where pensioners willingly volunteered to take part in the clean-up effort as an attempt to protect younger workers from the effects of radiation.
The plight of the homeless — and the potential to be exploited — is far from a uniquely Japanese problem. In 2012, a U.S. ad agency drew headlines and scorn for its transformation of homeless Austinites into mobile Wi-Fi hotspots. In cities across America, while cutting off programs that would actually help the homeless rather than scam them out of earned wages, or encouraging those who are making attempts to get off the streets, the very act of being homeless is being criminalized.