Canadian Premier Rachel Notley says she’s incredibly disturbed 300 South African firefighters working the blaze near Fort McMurray are receiving an allowance of only $15 a day, when they are paying the South African government $170 a day per firefighter.
After less than a week on the job, the 300 firefighters went on strike Wednesday in a pay dispute with their South African employer. All of the firefighters have been “demobilized” since the strike, and some or all of them will be flown home, their managers say.
The firefighters arrived in Canada last month, singing and dancing as they landed at Edmonton airport, gaining media attention across Canada and internationally.
Now they’re angry that they are receiving the small allowance during their Canadian deployment, in addition to their South African salaries, despite promises of additional money.
Speaking in Calgary on Thursday, Ms. Notley said the firefighters need to be paid at least the minimum required by Alberta law – $11.20 an hour.
She said the province is paying $170 daily for each South African firefighter, as well as providing food, accommodation and travel costs.
“It’s not acceptable to me and to my government that we would have people working for wages in our province that do not align with our labour laws,” she said.
“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.”
It’s unclear how many of the firefighters will be returning to South Africa, since it will depend on the wildfire situation in Alberta.
The South African government organization, Working on Fire, said last week the firefighters would be getting a pay increase because of Canadian concerns that the South Africans would seem to be “slave labour” if they were paid substantially less than Canadian firefighters, who receive up to $26 an hour.
However, “Working on Fire” have stated that even though they are being paid $170 per day per firefighter, the firefighters signed a contract before their deployment, agreeing to $15 a day during their deployment, plus an additional $35 for each day they worked after they return home.
This is in addition to their accommodation and other expenses, and their regular South African wages, which are as little as $200 a month.
A statement by the “Working on Fire” said there was “confusion” among the firefighters after media reports of the promised pay increase.
“We are dispatching a senior management team to Alberta this evening to address the firefighters’ concerns and to assist with the smooth demobilization of our firefighters and their safe return back home to South Africa,” the statement said.
The dispute began just north of Fort McMurray when a team of 60 South African firefighters met with one of their managers on Tuesday morning. A local contractor working with the team described the meeting to The Globe and Mail.
Because Alberta’s forestry department has warned contractors that speaking with the media will lead to being barred from future contracts, the man has asked that his identity be withheld.
At the impromptu meeting in the field, the crew of firefighters learned that their pay wouldn’t be $50 daily, as many believed, but only $15, with the remainder paid out once they returned home.
“It was pretty clear that within minutes they had a mutiny on their hand,” the contractor told The Globe and Mail.
Early Wednesday morning all 300 firefighters went on strike. They were only on the fifth day of a 14-day work schedule, followed by three days of rest and one day of travel.
More than 2,000 firefighters are now working on the Fort McMurray wildfire. Most are from Canada. Because the 300 South Africans left the fireline Wednesday, there have been reports of staffing shortages.
The pay dispute is focused on two issues: the timing of the deployment allowance of $50 a day, and the question of parity with the wages of Canadians.
On the first issue, the South African firefighters want to receive the entire daily allowance during their deployment. Their South African managers argue that the firefighters should receive “most” of the $50 daily allowance after their return home, so that they don’t waste it on higher expenses in Canada.
On the second issue, a Canadian manager said last week that the firefighters would receive a higher amount this year – the equivalent of about $15 to $21 an hour. He said the Canadian officials had requested that the South African firefighters receive a wage similar to Canadian firefighters.
Some of the South African firefighters, learning of this statement, were angered that their $50 daily allowance is far less than the $21 hourly pay that they expected.
On Wednesday, the South African managers gave a different account. Trevor Abrahams, a board member at Working on Fire, said the pay “increase” is mostly derived from the higher “value” of their Canadian pay this year, due to currency fluctuations and the lower cost of living in South Africa compared to Canada.
Premier Notley noted that the dispute is between the firefighters and the South African government but said she would be taking massive steps to intervene.
Her promise is that she will make sure that all the South African firefighters will be compensated in accordance with what was originally paid in accordance with Alberta labour laws.