Perspectives on TEPCO’s Use of Contract Workers

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    Those who have been following Japanese and international media accounts of the work going on at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant have probably heard that quite a few of the people working there are not employees of Tokyo Electric Power Company. Some are employees of large corporations such as Hitachi and Toshiba, while others are contract laborers who have been hired to perform manual labor.

    In the past few days, two interesting articles about these non-TEPCO workers have appeared. One was in the Asahi Shimbun:

    A man in his 40s, who was dispatched to Fukushima No. 1 from a partner of the plant’s operator, Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO), said, “I did not want to go there. But if I reject the request, I will lose my job.”

    The daily pay is less than 20,000 yen ($236).

    “I hear some construction workers were employed at a wage of several tens of thousands of yen per hour. But we are working on a conventional daily wage as our company has had cooperative relationships with TEPCO,” the man said.

    Meanwhile, many of the man’s colleagues volunteered to go into the plant, saying, “We are the only workers (that can do the job).” Because of that gung-ho spirit, they share a sense of solidarity, the man added.

    At one of the plant’s subcontractors, the president and elderly executives volunteered, hoping that they would be chosen instead of younger workers, because they were worried about the long-term health effects on them.

    “Even we can do simple work, such as laying cables,” one of the elderly executives said.

    Immediately after the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake, the number of TEPCO employees and others from the firm’s business partners, such as Toshiba Corp. and Hitachi Ltd., at Fukushima No. 1 totaled more than 700. After an explosion took place at a building housing the No. 2 reactor on March 15, however, most of them evacuated. Only about 70 workers remained and continued the recovery work.

    Their number was initially announced as 50. Because of that, foreign media labeled them the “Fukushima 50,” and the heroic tag stuck.

    Today, the more accurate “Fukushima 700” at the plant are classified into such groups as “recovery,” “information,” “medical service” and “security.”

    And the other was in the New York Times. The New York times puts its focus on contract “day laborers,” describing them as examples of the “thousands of untrained, itinerant, temporary laborers who handle the bulk of the dangerous work at nuclear power plants here and in other countries”:

    Collectively, these contractors were exposed to levels of radiation about 16 times as high as the levels faced by Tokyo Electric employees last year, according to Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, which regulates the industry. These workers remain vital to efforts to contain the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima nuclear plants.

    They are emblematic of Japan’s two-tiered work force, with an elite class of highly paid employees at top companies and a subclass of laborers who work for less pay, have less job security and receive fewer benefits. Such labor practices have both endangered the health of these workers and undermined safety at Japan’s 55 nuclear reactors, critics charge.

    “This is the hidden world of nuclear power,” said Yuko Fujita, a former physics professor at Keio University in Tokyo and a longtime campaigner for improved labor conditions in the nuclear industry. “Wherever there are hazardous conditions, these laborers are told to go. It is dangerous for them, and it is dangerous for nuclear safety.”

    Of roughly 83,000 workers at Japan’s 18 commercial nuclear power plants, 88 percent were contract workers in the year that ended in March 2010, the nuclear agency said. At the Fukushima Daiichi plant, 89 percent of the 10,303 workers during that period were contractors.

    Over at the NBR Japan-U.S. Discussion Forum, , several people have written responses to the New York Times story. Here are a few excerpts that I found particularly interesting.

    Lance Gatling, on whether one needs skilled regular employees for most of the work at a nuclear plant:

    “…Other than the nuclear reactors that supply the steam, the plants are pretty much bog-standard steam turbines driving electrical generators, diesel backup generators, steam pipes, water and fuel pipes, etc. And mopping up water, radioactive or not, or repairing a condenser don’t require a U. Tokyo physics degree. I’d guess the normal work on the inner containment and pressure vessels also primarily consists of using an overhead crane to move the very heavy fuel rod assemblies, again, not rocket science.

    If I recall correctly, the US, and presumably other countries’ nuclear industries, use a lot of outside workers, especially manual laborers…”

    Paul J. Scalise, on how international observers once praised TEPCO for cutting its personnel costs:

    “…When the domestic and global neo-liberal consensus forced retail electricity liberalization on TEPCO and the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan in the late 1990s (before the California Crisis and Enron bankruptcy changed the political dynamic in Japan), TEPCO was forced to cut costs wherever it was not economically dangerous or politically damaging in order to pacify the stock market. The worry from financial analysts (myself included) was that increased competition would erode profit margins, threaten dividend payouts, and put downward pressure on TEPCO’s share price.

    Shareholders certainly did not want that and neither did the electric power companies.

    One popular and strategically convenient place touted by TEPCO with great fanfare from financial analysts and the Western media was personnel costs reductions.

    Starting in fiscal year 2000, TEPCO would highlight their “attrition” efforts. Essentially, this meant two things. First, they would hire fewer recent college and high school graduates to replace their retiring TEPCO employees. This was different from the common Western practice of simply handing-out pink slips and firing their employees, but few cared. Second, they would outsource at considerably lower cost to the company all of the grunt work that they usually paid their full-time employees to do.

    If you stop to consider that a TEPCO nuclear engineer makes, on average, ¥10 million yen a year or about ($110k) versus roughly ¥3-5 million for the day laborers, it was a logical move by a company forced to adjust itself to a politically changing environment. (I have no idea what the current overtime pay is for both categories.)

    My personal view is that TEPCO is an honorable company that provided stable power to over 27 million residential and industrial customers in eight prefectures, spanning 15,254 square miles without incident for close to six decades. Blackouts in TEPCO’s service region–before this crisis–were few and modest. The average annual duration of forced outages over the past decade, for example, records slightly over four minutes per household versus 69 minutes in the USA, 73 minutes in the UK, and 45 minutes in France.

    TEPCO deserves some recognition and respect for its successes and achievements. Instead, it will likely be remembered in the history books for the nuclear crisis, the nuclear power cover-ups initiated by a select few, and these popular human interest stories.

    Perhaps the most ironic thing of all is that TEPCO is now demonized by the very same Western media sources and stock market commentators that once praised it for becoming “more efficient.” …

    Minoru Mochizuki, comparing the use of outsourcing and contractors by TEPCO and Toyota:

    “…TEPCO is essentially protected by the government as a sole supplier of electric power for an area that includes Tokyo and all neighboring industrial areas. Such being the case, TEPCO is not facing any competitions that Toyota is facing which makes the employees of TEPCO more like bureaucratic. The other thing that makes TEPCO different from Toyota is that TEPCO’s engineers do not design or manufactures anything. All their facilities, equipment, tools, and materials are purchased from outside, while Toyota’s engineers, even college graduate elite engineers, involve deeply into designing of facilities, equipment, tools, and materials, even though they are actually manufactured by the suppliers. While Toyota has a certain number of first tier suppliers who actually designs and builds to a certain level of sub-assemblies, and there are second and third tier suppliers who supply components, Toyota engineers eyes are very sharply checking all level of subassemblies and components. On the contrary, I assume TEPCO is almost totally relying on major contractors such as GE, Toshiba, Hitachi, Kajima (site and building construction), etc., as well as their contractors for construction, operation and maintenance of a nuclear power station. I wonder if this made TEPCO engineers more bookish engineers than practical engineers, if I may say so to describe their state of isolation from reality, and I suppose that made their decision making after the earthquake slower. It is said that nobody with TEPCO wanted to make quick decisions as they were afraid of taking responsibilities. This is just an opposite of military organizations, where a delay in decision making makes a difference in life and death.

    As the NYT story depicted, the austere conditions of the second tier and third tier contractor’s workers were undeniable, which were also reported by the Japanese media…”

    Also worth checking out: Peter Ennis of the Weekly Toyo Keizai has also made a list of what he sees as flaws in the New York Times article.

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