Would you risk your life for your job? Is any job worth risking your life over?
Temporary workers stationed at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan must have asked themselves these very questions hours into the aftermath of the devastating earthquake and tsunami.
As the earth buckled and caved the nuclear plants, flooded by the powerful tsumani, were cut off from electricity. The temp workers soon faced the magnitude of their situation, as some of the reactors were pushed to the brink of a partial meltdown.
This week the New York Times is spotlighting these lesser-known heroes who have put their lives on the line to help contain the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plants.
Lured by the promise of higher wages in exchange for working with radiation, these untrained, nomadic temp workers flock to the plants by the thousands. They are expected to handle most of the dangerous work at power plants not only in Japan, but in several other countries.
This perilous work comes with dire consequences. Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency estimates that last year these contractors were exposed to levels of radiation about 16 times as high as the levels faced by Tokyo Electric employees, which operates the Fukushima Daiichi power plant.
The temp workers in Japan belong to a subclass of laborers that work for less pay and fewer benefits. According to the Times, Japan’s labor practices are endangering the health of these workers and undermining safety at its 55 nuclear reactors.
Past and current contract workers at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant describe highly dangerous working conditions, including exposure to intense heat and radiation while cleaning the reactors’ drywell, living in constant fear of being fired, and hiding injuries to avoid being terminated.
While only about 50 workers in Japan have claimed workers’ compensation after developing forms of cancer, health experts say it’s especially hard in their case to prove a direct link to their nuclear work, and many cases often go unreported or tracked.