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Vietnamese man surprised to be driven to Fukushima to do cleanup work

Immigration bureau says 'interns' cannot be given decontamination jobs

This 24-year-old Vietnamese man says he felt trapped after heavily borrowing to come to Japan for a construction job and then finding himself doing radiation-cleanup work in Fukushima Prefecture.

TOKYO -- A Vietnamese man says he was deceived into coming to Japan for a "construction" job only to end up in Fukushima Prefecture on radiation decontamination assignments.

The Iwate Prefecture construction company that employed him denies duping the worker or doing anything illegal.

But from the Vietnamese trainees' point of view, a kind of duplicity began in Vietnam.

The 24-year-old, who spoke with Nikkei on the condition of anonymity, said he had responded to a poster in Vietnam advertising a technical intern training program in Japan.

The poster said, "You can earn over 150,000 yen ($1,400) a month in Japan," according to the man. This was enticing to a high school diploma holder who was earning 30,000 yen a month working construction.

But "I wouldn't have come to Japan if I'd known the job involved decontamination work," he said.

The man arrived in Tokyo with two other Vietnamese men in September 2015. On several dozen occasions he was assigned to do decontamination work in residential areas of the Fukushima Prefecture city of Koriyama. These assignments began in October 2015 and lasted until March 2016.

Three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant melted down after a big earthquake and tsunami hit in 2011.

Some five years later, the Vietnamese man found himself demolishing contaminated structures in Kawamata, Fukushima Prefecture, while a government radiation evacuation order was still in place.

"I'm not the only one who regrets coming to Japan," the man said.

The immigration bureau of Japan's Ministry of Justice on Wednesday released a statement that decontamination work does not fit the purpose of the trainee program. It gave two reasons: Radiation cleanup work is not widely performed outside Japan and having trainees take anti-radiation measures is not suitable when they are meant to be concentrating on learning skills.

The statement came about a week after this story originally appeared in Nikkei.

From now on, the bureau will require companies hiring foreign trainees to submit a pledge not to let them engage in decontamination work.

According to the Zentouitsu Workers Union, which handles labor issues involving foreigners, the Iwate construction company hired the Vietnamese recruit to work in "construction machinery, demolition and civil engineering."

The technical intern program brings in foreign workers from developing countries. The trainees help Japan solve its labor shortage and are imparted with skills they can bring back to their home countries.

The program accredits 139 mainly low-level jobs in 77 industries, including construction, food production, textile and clothing. It partly reflects requests from developing countries. The program's literature does not specifically describe decontamination work.

According to Zentouitsu, this is the first known case in which a foreign trainee was made to do radiation decontamination work.

"I know radiation decontamination is important work," said Shoichi Ibusuki, a lawyer and member of the Advocacy Network for Foreign Trainees, "but this case clearly runs counter to the system's purpose of transferring skills to developing countries."

Said the construction company president, "The technical intern training program sounds nice, but in reality, for the foreigners in the program, it's the money that matters."

Upon his arrival in Japan, the Vietnamese man underwent a month's training, including courses in Japanese and local customs. He then joined the construction company.

He was told the job would be "simple work involving washing walls and things like that. Anyone can do it," he said. But to his shock, he was taken by company car to a residential area of Koriyama that had been affected by the triple meltdown.

"It involved shoveling out mud from gutters, cutting grass and replacing dirt in the backyards of apartment buildings, things like that," the man said. "I had been told it was going to be construction work in Iwate, so it didn't make sense."

He said he often saw Japanese colleagues holding what appeared to be radiation detectors close to the ground and saying to each other things like, "This spot seems dangerous."

The man complained to the company president about the unexpected work but was told, "If you're scared, go home to Vietnam."

This was not an option. The man had borrowed over 1 million yen so he could pay a Vietnamese agency a 1.6 million yen fee to come to Japan and take part in the intern program. He said he would need a decade to repay the debt at the salary levels in Vietnam.

By this past November, though, he was overcome by fear and quit the company. Zentouitsu supporters now help him with living expenses.

The president of his former company acknowledged that the man was given decontamination work but denied there was anything illegal about it. The foreign trainee, the president said, was doing "what Japanese workers were doing."

"We do various kinds of work; decontamination is just one," the president added. "The location was a residential area and wasn't particularly dangerous."

He said the nature of the decontamination work was explained before going to the site.

"We always give a training session before going to a site," the president said. "In fact, we spent a day for training at the office on the site before we did the decontamination work. He may not have understood it because he didn't understand Japanese, but if he had asked, we would have given him a full explanation."

The president said it is difficult to recruit workers. "We run job ads," he said, "but we get responses mostly from the elderly." He described a situation in which it is impossible to turn down orders despite not having enough workers because then contractors "will stop giving us work."

And, he added, "we aren't the only one using interns in decontamination work."

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