south african firefighters Emergency Services Echo–Nova
Photo Cred: Supplied | On File

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.

Premier Rachel Notley

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.

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About the Author

Brent Lindeque is the founder and editor in charge at Good Things Guy.

Recognised as one of the Mail and Guardian’s Top 200 Young South African’s as well as a Primedia LeadSA Hero, Brent is a change maker, thought leader, radio host, foodie, vlogger, writer and all round good guy.


  1. The crux for me is that they only get a monthly salary of 200$ in SA. They would have earned 700$ if they continued working in Canada. They just shot themselves in the foot because they can’t do the math.

  2. If you need more firefighters please let me know. I’m a highly qualified fireman and paramedic that can’t get a job in my country because I am white, male and 46 years old.

  3. This is not about nationalism, good will but about the law and money. Is it illegal in Canada to pay “ANY” worker under the minimum wage? Yes / No ? If it is illegal then these workers irrespective of their origin were used as slave labor and I would advise them to lawyer up.

  4. If these guys are only getting $50 a day out of the $170 Canada is paying the SA government. ( witch i doubt because there will be “hidden cost” and they wont get the full $35 thats outstanding when they get home) That means the SA government is stealing a total of $504000 from these figher fighters that they call our pride and joy in 14 day work cycle.

    Lets say its R15 to the dollar. That comes up to more R7.8 mil in 14 days . Our beloved president JZ needs to pay back the money . No easier way than to take if from our own people

  5. Don’t worry about it Notley, you’re wasting your time.
    Count yourself lucky they didn’t burn down their accommodation, the transport and any other benefits they could have earned, just because of ‘greed’.

    It was disgraceful behaviour by all concerned, trying to hold the Alberta province to ransom, in it’s time of need.

    Now you’ve seen the tip of the iceberg…

  6. $50/day is more than they can dream of doing the same job or “calling” …. come back home n probably hv no job is the alternative. ‘A bird in da hand is surely worth more than 2 in da bush’ ….in addition they will get accomodation n meals …. in addition they should be ambasssadors 4 South Africa n show our resilience n tenacity …. So that nxt time there is a blaze to put out somewhere, they will call us again …. in the present way, this is the last time we get a call out…. another opportunity lost.

  7. None of the above fellows would continue with the job as soon as you realise that you have been taken for a ride. It is always easier to utter words when you are not on the receiving end. Injustices always bring about unpalatable results and downing tools is one of them. No one understand fully what white privilege is. None of the previous advantaged would continue in such barbaric exploitation PERIOD!

  8. Remember that this company (Working on Fire) in SA could not function if it did not have BEE/AA ratings (an institutionalized racist/sexist policy worse than Apartheid).. in other words ‘Black’ owned, namely the cANCer. Barbaric exploitation now ?

    So stop blaming whites for black problems and look at the real reasons for your problems.
    There’s no such thing as white privilege.. it might seem so to you, because maybe you’re too lazy to work your way up the ladder of life.

    No Thabang.. this group tried the same tactics that work in SA, but they got their butts kicked real hard. Welcome to the real world. 🙂

    1. Lol what’s wrong with you George. I’m white and I think you’re talking some serious shit man.

      If I was a fire fighter getting paid 6x less than my Canadian counter parts I would be really angry too. Not to mention their wages are illegally low in Canada, so they aren’t even allowed to work there.

      Enjoy working your shitty middle class job, looking down on people who are just trying to get paid more to hopefully achieve a dream that came easier to you because you grew up privileged.

      Glad I run my own company so I don’t ever have to deal with people like you calling less fortunate people lazy, it’s fucking disgusting.

  9. Before you get all ‘lord, high and mighty’…

    The contract, as stated, was made with Alberta State and the SA Government (You know that ‘poor underprivileged’ government), who are the ones that pay them, to which they agreed. They renegaded on the contract so were sent home, nothing more to it.

    If you run your own company you know this type of action can bankrupt you, and next time you wouldn’t employ people like this. I certainly wouldn’t.

    And if you actually do a proper costing structure.. the pay is not that bad for SA standards, actually very good. Over and above that, this was a big opportunity for the firefighters.. but they blew it.

    Lot’s of people from SA go overseas working, on different pay structures to the local population.. it’s nothing new worldwide. When they prove themselves, the pay structure changes.

    If you have a chip on your shoulder take it up with your employer.. act like a spoilt brat and you’re out.

    Don’t make excuses for bad behavior, it will backfire on you.

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