As Japan’s cleanup efforts continue within several miles from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, the call for a greater workforce has opened up a whole new set of complications, arrests and fines on the recruitment of workers — legitimate or otherwise.


In Japan, illegal recruiters scour the sidewalks and train stations to search for the homeless, not for spreading charity, but for taking advantage of the jobless men’s desperation to make ends meet. The recruited men then join a band of workers assigned to do the massive and dangerous cleanup in radioactive areas near the nuclear plant.

And the reward for hiring each head? $100.

Since the 2011 nuclear fallout that followed after walls of water tore along the shores of Sendai, Japan has allotted nearly $35 billion of taxpayers’ money to wage an ambitious cleanup effort within the affected area, which is bigger than Hong Kong by comparison. Thus, a growing need emerged for contractors to organize a much bigger workforce to begin the project of painstakingly collecting, containing and appropriately disposing of radioactive materials within the declared fallout zone.

In the midst of the lucrative opportunity, contractors have begun to hire subcontractors, then the same pattern went on down the line until the team-ups resulted in layers upon layers of subcontractors, middlemen, gangs and illegal recruiters. At the bottom are the homeless workers, some willing to work at an hourly rate of about $6 after deductions are trimmed off. Large cuts go to those who are at the top of the hierarchy, leaving the workers under-compensated, and sometimes, unpaid.

Seiji Sasa, one of the recruiters who worked for local Inagawa-kai gangster Mitsunori Nishimura, searched for homeless men as prospects along streets and at train stations until his arrest in November 2013. He was later released by the police, who then arrested Nishimura and ordered him to pay a hefty fine of $2,500. Police said that Nishimura amassed about $10,000 of public money originally allocated for the workers’ wages.

Yet his arrest was only one of the dozens made in a complex web of underground operations that also involved public shelters that housed a number of homeless individuals. And fines often ranged from $2,500 to $5,000.

The hundreds of companies and subcontractors dedicated to the cleanup posed the greatest challenge for authorities to track down the complex details of manning operations. According to international news agency Reuters, 733 companies struck agreements with the Ministry of Environment for a cleanup that covers the 10 most contaminated towns, including a highway near Fukushima.

In addition, the news agency said 56 subcontractors were listed on contracts, worth $2.5 billion, with the environment ministry for assignments in places where radiation levels are so high that even the construction ministry does not approve of any public work done in the specified areas.

Japan’s aging population, coupled with the country’s strict labor laws, unintentionally helped give way to the thriving grey market behind the companies that legitimately hold agreement with the environmental and construction ministries. Already, Reuters discovered that among the companies working for the Ministry of Environment, some do not have listed contact numbers, websites or corporate documents confirming their identity, let alone legitimate existence.

Be that as it may, the cleanup process has already shown progress. And as the nuclear waste is being cleared out, the equally radioactive grey labor market may soon clear up as well as authorities find ways to put the issues behind.