Japan's homeless are being recruited to clean up the radioactive debris at Fukushima

Player utilities

This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Carol Hills: I'm Carol Hills, and this is The World. It might be one of the worst jobs in Japan, cleaning up radioactive waste at Fukushima. Three years ago a massive earthquake and tsunami hit the nuclear power plant on Japans northeast coast causing the worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl. Cleanup at the site has fallen behind schedule, and finding workers has been a challenge. Now it turns out that the homeless are among those being recruited. Reuters Antoni Slodkowski was one of the reporters who uncovered the story. And Antoni, you actually talked with a recruiter for the Fukushima clean up. How is he going about recruiting them?

Antoni Slodkowski: Seji Sasa wakes up very early in the morning, about 3:00, 4:00 a.m., and one day we decided to join him for a walk around the Sendai station where he actually recruits the homeless. And he knew everybody by name. He knows where the police comes to the stations, he knows where the homeless sleep, he talks to them, he chums them up. And by knowing by his territory basically, very well, he can always very easily find someone new, someone who's just arrived or has become homeless. And if they're hungry or if they're desperate, they would sometimes ask him for a job.

Hills: Who is Seji Sasa? I mean, does he work for one of the companies? Who is he and what's in it for him to do this?

Slodkowski: Well, he's a sort of freelancing recruiter. He used to be a former wrestling promoter and right now he basically makes money off these homeless people that he recruits to various companies. They pay him about $100 per worker that he sends in to different places. So that's quite a lot of money.

Hills: Who's they? Who's paying him?

Slodkowski: The way it works is the government funds this huge cleanup of the areas around Fukishima to allow the evacuees to come back to their homes, and that cleanup is very loosely regulated, and it's quite easy for, sort of, smaller subcontractors that are actually illegal to infiltrate the subcontracting network.

Hills: What do the workers get? Particularly the homeless workers who are recruited?

Slodkowski: That's a very good question, because giving homeless people work is actually a good thing, but the problem with this situation is that these men have no contract. They work under no contracts and they are very vulnerable. So if their employers decide to skim their wages or charge them exorbitant amounts of money for food, for heating, for coffee, for coffee, for cigarettes, for whatever. Very often they don't get paid in advance, or they don't get paid in advance, or they don't get paid by weekly, but they sometimes get paid in 45 day installments. And these people have very little or nothing.

Hills: It's suggest to me that they're obviously not going home every night, they're homeless. But what are the conditions under which they work and live while they're doing this cleanup work?

Slodkowski: The workers we talked to are housed by gangsters in very crowded apartments, sometimes four people living there, so no personal space whatsoever?

Hills: How did gangsters, and you talk a lot about organized crime in your piece, how did those elements get involved in this kind of clean up economy?

Slodkowski: Because the law regulating clean up is very loose and it doesn't really require very stringent scrutiny, and the subcontracting networks are not scrutinized at all. And so that's how the small scale gangsters preying on the most vulnerable get involved.

Hills: I know it's been difficult finding workers for the clean up job. Is that because there aren't any or because of the nature of the work, people just don't want to do it?

Slodkowski: I think it's a confluence of factors. Part of that is the fact that Japan is an aging society and it's closed to immigrants, so people who end up working in those kinds of dangerous and difficult jobs are very often elderly or people who got restructured from the companies. You know, people realize that if they go and work in these kind of companies in these kind of conditions they are not going to make much money, and this is partly why the cleanup is already at least three years behind the schedule.

Hills: Antoni Slodkowski is one of the Reuters reporters who investigated the use of Japans homeless to clean up at Fukushima. Thanks so much Antoni.

Slodkowski: Thank you Carol.