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SA firefighters in Canada: here are the facts

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The singing firefighters are returning home after negotiations failed to resolve a pay dispute

Photo of firefighters with South African and Canadian flags
About 300 South African firefighters have been involved in a pay dispute in Canada. Photo: Working on Fire website
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301 South African firefighters are headed home after a pay dispute stalled their firefighting efforts.

The firefighters were brought to Alberta, a province of Canada, to fight what is known as the Fort McMurray blaze, which had been spiraling out of control late May.

The contract was negotiated by the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Center (CIFFC) and Working on Fire, a South African government program. As a result of the contract, the provincial government in Alberta agreed to pay $170 Canadian dollars per firefighter per day to the program (all dollar amounts in this article are Canadian - it is about R12 to $1).

Kishigu Holdings is a private company that is the primary implementer of the Working on Fire program. Through the Working on Fire program, it has hired and trained over 5,000 firefighters. It is unclear how much of a profit Kishigu makes from these deployments.

The firefighters were profiled in the news especially for their singing upon arrival at the airport in Edmonton, Alberta.

The firefighters had ceased working last Wednesday. According to most news reports this followed them hearing reports from South African news sources claiming they were making $15 to $21 an hour. But according to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), the firefighters were being paid $50 per 12-hour workday, a little more than $4 an hour.

The minimum wage in Alberta is $11.20 an hour. However the $50 was classified as a stipend, meaning it is not subject to Alberta’s minimum wage laws. The $170 is meant to cover the stipend, regular South African pay of the firefighters, and operational expenses of the program. As the average pay of a South African firefighter is R85 or $7 a day, an estimated $112 per firefighter per day would be going to the operational expenses. Overall, the program would be gaining R2.8 million each week for those “operational expenses”. Additionally, officials in Alberta confirmed that they were providing lodging, equipment, and meals to all crews.

To further complicate matters, Working on Fire is only providing $15 of the daily stipend immediately. Under the contract, it promised that the remainder of wages would be paid within six months of return to South Africa. Some of the firefighters indicated that they had not been paid the remainder in similar previous arrangements.

Last Wednesday, on the fifth day of their 14 day work-cycle in Canada, the firefighters went on strike, indicating displeasure with the overall amount and staggered nature of the payments. Working on Fire sent a management team to try and settle the dispute, but finally decided to pull out all the firefighters on Sunday evening.

CBC reported that Alberta Premier Rachel Notley found it unacceptable that the contract did not appear to provide for a fair and equitable wage. She believed that the firefighters should have been paid the minimum wage of $11.20/hour. She ensured future agreements would comply with the province’s labour laws.

This is not the first time that South African firefighters have been sent to Canada. Last year, two crews were sent to combat fires in British Columbia and Alberta, through similar agreements between the CIFFC and Working on Fire. After their deployment, the CIFFC had released a Crew Performance Report praising the South African crew on their fitness, work ethic, and morale. While there were no complaints from the South African firefighters regarding their pay, Canadian officials had expressed concern at the lack of wage parity. As a result, CIFFC had increased the overall compensation to Working on Fire, believing that it would translate into more money to the firefighters themselves.

Official figures provided by Alberta government note that the average wildland firefighter makes $30 an hour, with an average workweek of 44 hours. The starting salaries for inexperienced firefighters are not lower than $20 an hour with overtime. Under the contract, the South African firefighters are making only a quarter of that rate, with a 60 hour workweek. The Alberta government itself pays $21 - $26 per hour for seasonal firefighters in addition to providing their training and certifications.

It is unclear how much Working on Fire and Kishigu Holdings spend on administrative and training costs. Working on Fire has released a statement saying “We always agree on remuneration with our firefighters when going on deployments of this nature and, as in this instance, formal contracts were signed… We are extremely disappointed that we couldn’t resolve this internally before it escalated to become an international incident.”

The firefighters are expected to return to South Africa on Tuesday. It is unclear if they will face disciplinary action from Working on Fire for their roles in the strike, or what they are going to be paid for their time spent in Canada.

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Letters

Dear Editor

For an article entitled: "here are the facts", this piece has left me (and I'm sure many others) quite unenlightened.
It appears that WOF has been less than honest with us, with its workers and with the Canadian fire-fighting crowd.

While I believe this could easily have been handled better by the South Africans, (both the workers and their apparently dishonest managers), one can't blame the guys for being a bit peeved. The lower level of "worldliness" of this poor group should also have been considered by WOF when drawing up the "agreement"; and the Canadians' decision to up the wages (and also their previous 'uncomfortable' experience with the 'low daily wages' paid) paints a picture of "typical SA" greed and dishonesty which has caused an unnecessarily embarrassing; even shameful, image of the South African employer.

Dear Editor

How shameful that South Africa continues to exploit our precious human resources to line the pockets of a few at the expense of us all. Our continued failure to recognise and understand that our most valuable assets as a nation is our people, will be the undoing off all that has been achieved.

Dear Editor

What were people expecting! The least powerful and influential are always exploited by the well-connected. The South African agency knew exactly what they were doing, and it's disgraceful. Their business operation should be shut down immediately.

Dear Editor

Working on Fire is a skills development program, taking unemployed people from marginalised communities and hopefully upskilling them to become 'employable'. This scenario should really have been avoided and comes down to nothing more than a breakdown in communication.

If you think of it as an internship, then minimum wages don't apply. If you want to look at the raw figures, going from R85 a day in RSA to $50/R600 a day in Canada is already a huge jump.

It shouldn't be about the money, but rather the opportunity. This has clearly been lost in the maelstrom now. I'm sure many would have seen this trip as an exciting experience, it's an overseas trip which is not within reach of 95% of South African's budgets.

All the while a fire continues raging, and an opportunity is lost.

Dear Editor

As the smoke and mirrors begin to clear,the true picture slowly emerges:

1. Working on Fire (WOF) is a labour broker that in essence supplied the Canadian government with 300 skilled fire fighters. The payment as agreed by those deployed is below the minimum wage. This is a travesty which the Canadian authorities identified and tried to address.

2. WOF has operated in bad faith previously and this has resulted in a culture of suspicion. The staggered payments are unlawful as you cannot pay someone for work done six months later. In the unlikely event of this holding up, will interest be paid or exchange rate gains be passed on?

3. A huge number of individuals attacked the firefighters for standing up to what amounts to exploitation. Why? Surely the facts suggest that they were rightfully aggrieved? As a white South African I cannot help but feel that the stereotypes and mentality of a number of whites allowed them to make rather bigoted comments.

4. Someone suggested that the firefighters were in fact interns. This holds no water as you do not send unskilled people halfway across the world to do a dangerous job. Again if one was to pursue this flawed logic, the Canadians would not risk deployment.

I believe that the management were caught out when they were challenged on two fronts. The logical question is whether their labour practices are legal and whether they are registered to render such a service. Are they a non profit organisation? Do they comply with our laws?

The truth will out!

Dear Editor

The story regarding the firefighters pay is being confused with irrelevant facts in some instances and a lack of numbers and facts regarding the contract between the Canadians and Working on Fire (WoF). For instance: The minimum wage in Canada is irrelevant. If WoF can prove that they have contracted the firefighters for this mission, and their pay and contractual obligations are inline with our local labour laws, then the firefighters should stick to their contractual obligations. If WoF would have returned a profit on a successful mission, then good for them. I would expect them to do so, since it will lighten the load on the South African taxpayer. Globalisation is at play here, not exploitation. However, if it turns out that individuals have unethically profiteered from this mission, well then I would hope that they are brought to book. Everyone should have gained from this mission, now it seems everyone has lost.

Dear Editor

Without W.o.f there would be nothing.

The unemployed would still be sitting twiddling their thumbs without a cent.

For the previously unemployed, this Canadian adventure had to be 'manna from heaven' - $50 per day. (R600/day) What minimum wages are for Canadian fire-fighters has absolutely nothing to do with wages in other parts of the world.
How many people in SA earn R600/day?

However, being paid only $15 and the balance 'within 6 months' seems extremely odd and clearly upset the fire-fighters.

W.o.f clearly have overheads and expenses and are not a charity or NGO. They are a business. Without access to their books, one cannot comment on their $112/fire-fighter fee. It seems a lot but you don't know.

Who paid for the airfares? What are their costs? Don't jump to conclusions.

As I see it, everyone has become a loser due to this strike action.