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Vietnamese Intern Allegedly Tricked Into Cleaning up Radioactive Sites in Japan

A 24-year old Vietnamese citizen who was serving as an intern in a government-sponsored Technical Intern Training Program may have been duped into performing cleanup in areas with unsafe radiation levels following the 2011 Fukushima nuclear reactor meltdown.

The man, who has chosen to remain anonymous, began working for an Iwate Prefecture-based construction firm in the fall of 2015 and was sent to Fukushima more than a dozen times to do decontamination work in a residential area, including digging out soil from ditches and dismantling buildings, according to Xinhua. His work occurred in exclusion zones that were under restrictions due to high levels of radiation.

Tokyo-based Zentoitsu Workers Union, which represents the Vietnamese man, claims the contract stated he would be doing public engineering and dismantling tasks, not cleaning up areas contaminated with radiation, as reported by the Japan Times. He quit in November 2017 because of the health risks he was being exposed to. He said that the company had been ignoring his requests for explanations. He later added: “I wouldn't have come to Japan if I knew I would be doing this [decontamination work].”

The man originally moved to Japan for the opportunity to make more money than is possible in Vietnam, as well as to learn the Japanese language. Moving cost him approximately US$15,129, and much of it was borrowed, which meant he could not simply return home even when he learned the dangers associated with his work. He was earning about US$1,320 a month, just a third of what Japanese workers were being paid for the same dangerous tasks. The union is seeking compensation equal to the amount he would have been paid if he had completed the rest of his three-year contract.

The firm denies the man’s claims and says they broke no labor laws. They argue he was given the same tasks as other Japanese workers and the work posed no threat to his health. Documents obtained by The Japan Times, however, reveal he was indeed exposed to radiation.

On Wednesday, the Japanese Ministry announced they are investigating the matter. They are looking into the possibility that the man’s duties differed from work described in the contract and the company hid that fact from the government. If the company is proven to have broken laws, the ministry would consider penalties.

The man was part of Japan's Technical Intern Trainee Program, which was established to help foreign nationals acquire technical skills they can use in their home countries. While it doesn’t forbid workers from working in contaminated areas, all assignments must align with the objective of the training system. An official said, “It’s hard to imagine that a trainee could use decontamination work experience in his or her home country,” suggesting the company did break labor laws.

Japanese Minister for Reconstruction Masayoshi Yoshino said that "this is something outrageous and totally illegal. If it's proven true [after investigations], legal action must be taken."

While noble in its aims, the Trainee Program has been widely criticized as a means for Japanese companies to get cheap foreign workers while bypassing strict immigration laws. The foreign trainees are often underpaid for unskilled jobs in dangerous conditions such as in construction or as oyster shuckers.

Japan is facing labor shortages thanks to its aging population and therefore, as of 2016, it employes 230,000 foreign workers as trainees in firms and farms. Vietnamese account for 38.6% of the indentured workers in Japan and the amount of Vietnamese in Japan is skyrocketing: between 2010 and 2016, the population has increased by four times to 232,562.

[Photo via SCMP

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