Yakuza sign up vagrants to work on radiation clean-up in Fukushima

Gangs send out recruiters to prey on homeless in murky labour market that has been created in the fallout from nuclear disaster at Fukushima

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 December, 2013, 11:49pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 31 December, 2013, 11:30am

Seiji Sasa arrives at the train station in Sendai, northern Japan, before dawn most mornings to prowl for homeless men.

He isn't a social worker. He's a recruiter. The men in Sendai Station are potential labourers that Sasa can dispatch to contractors in Japan's nuclear disaster zone for a bounty of US$100 a head.

"This is how labour recruiters like me come in every day," Sasa said, as he walked past men sleeping on cardboard.

I don’t ask any questions … I just find people and send them to work … That’s it

It's also how Japan finds people willing to accept minimum wage for one of the least desirable jobs in the industrialised world - working on the US$35 billion, taxpayer-funded effort to clean up radioactive fallout across an area of northern Japan larger than Hong Kong.

Almost three years ago, the massive earthquake and tsunami levelled villages across Japan's northeast coast and set off multiple meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear plant.

Today, the most ambitious radiation clean-up ever attempted is being dogged by both a lack of oversight and a shortage of workers. In January, October and November last year, 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 for less than the minimum wage.

The men reported up through a chain of three other companies to Obayashi, Japan's second-largest construction company.

Obayashi, which is one of more than 20 major contractors involved in government-funded radiation removal projects, has not been accused of any wrongdoing. But the spate of arrests has shown that members of Japan's three largest criminal syndicates - Yamaguchi-gumi, Sumiyoshi-kai and Inagawa-kai - had set up black-market recruiting agencies under Obayashi.

"We are taking it very seriously that these incidents keep happening one after another," said Junichi Ichikawa, a spokesman for Obayashi.

He said the company had tightened its scrutiny of its lower-tier subcontractors to shut out gangsters, known as the yakuza.

Japan has always had a grey market of day labour centred in Tokyo and Osaka. But over the past year, Sendai, the biggest city in the disaster zone, has emerged as a hiring hub for homeless men.

Many work clearing rubble left behind by the tsunami and cleaning up radioactive hotspots by removing topsoil, cutting grass and scrubbing down houses around the destroyed nuclear plant.

Sasa, 67, a broad-shouldered former wrestling promoter, was photographed by undercover police recruiting homeless men at Sendai train station.

The workers were then handed off through a chain of companies reporting up to Obayashi, as part of a US$1.4 million contract to decontaminate roads in Fukushima, police say.

"I don't ask any questions. That's not my job," Sasa said. "I just find people and send them to work. I send them and get money in exchange. That's it."

Only a third of the money allocated for wages by Obayashi's top contractor made it to the workers Sasa found. The rest was taken by middlemen, police say. After deductions for food and lodging, that left workers with an hourly rate of about US$6, just below the minimum wage, equal to US$6.50 per hour in Fukushima.

Some of the homeless men ended up in debt after fees for food and housing were deducted.

Sasa was arrested in November and released without being charged. His client, Mitsunori Nishimura, a local Inagawa-kai gangster, was arrested and paid a US$2,500 fine. Nishimura placed his workers with Shinei Clean. "Everyone is involved in sending workers," said Tatsuya Shoji, a Shinei manager. "We just happened to get caught this time."

His uncle, Shinei president Toshiaki Osada, was fined about US$5,000. Shinei Clean was also fined about US$5,000.

Part of the problem in monitoring taxpayer money in Fukushima is the sheer number of companies involved in decontamination, extending from the major contractors at the top to tiny subcontractors many layers below them.

The total number has not been announced. But in the 10 most contaminated towns and on a highway that runs north past the gates of the wrecked plant in Fukushima, 733 companies were found to be performing work for the Ministry of Environment.

As a practical matter, many of the construction companies involved in the clean-up say it is impossible to monitor what is happening on the ground because of the multiple layers of contracts .

"If you started looking at every single person, the project wouldn't move forward. You wouldn't get a 10th of the people you need," said Yukio Suganuma, president of Aisogo Service, a construction company that was hired last year to clean up radioactive fallout from streets in the town of Tamura.