South African firefighters line up to go through security on their way out of Canada at the Edmonton International Airport on Sunday night.
Photo Credit: CBC / Roberta Bell
South Africa‘s firefighting contingent left Canada last night, following a pay dispute that was escalating into an international incident. South African President, Jacob Zuma, addressed the issue yesterday in a press release, appointing his minister of the environment to resolve the wage dispute.
Today Edna Molewa dispatched a mediator from Working on Fire (WoF) to Canada to assist in resolving the firefighters’ dispute. “Working on Fire is part of the South African government’s Expanded Public Works Programme which aims to create job opportunities for South Africans who cannot find work, enabling them to gain skills and increase their capacity to earn income, and to enter the formal workplace”, according to the government’s website.
On May 29th, the South African firefighters arrived in Edmonton, to help battle the forest fires around Fort McMurray.
The team of 301 recieved a hero’s welcome, and returned the enthusiastic hospitality bursting into song. But on June 8th the firefirghters stopped working following a report they heard from back in South Africa, that they were making $50 a day, approximately $4 an hour.
The situation escalated when Alberta’s Premier Notley weighed in, noting that $4 an hour was unacceptably below the provincial minimum wage of $11.20 an hour.
“I can say right now that every hour that every firefighter from South Africa or anywhere else has worked on these fires will be compensated in accordance with our laws in this province,” Notley said on Thursday.
According to a government website, a typical firefighter in Alberta makes around $30 an hour. The Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre, which negotiated the contract with Working on Fire, said the $170 per day that had been agreed to, was not all take-home pay because expenses had to be factored in.
Pongukwenza Nene, 29, was one of the South African firefighters based in a camp north of Fort McMurray. He described most of the of the firefighters as very poor.
“I’m very, very, very sad and very worried,” Nene told CBC News on Friday, revealing that he was afraid of the consequences he and the other firefighters may face after speaking out.
A man staying at the work camp with the South Africans said despite the turmoil before they left on Saturday, they never stopped singing, and helped to lift the spirits of the other workers in the camp.
A deployment of two 14-day rotations had been planned, but the firefighters did not even complete the first rotation. In the meantime, the Fort McMurray wildfire, that became known as “The Beast” is now reported as contained. And now flooding is causing problems in some areas of northern Alberta.