Sparks still flying in fire pay feud
Disgruntled South African firefighters received support from Canadians this week, after it emerged that they had been poorly paid compared with their counterparts and Alberta Premier Rachel Notley had weighed in on the matter, saying she was “disturbed” to hear of meagre wages paid.
Canadian media reported that Alberta’s minimum hourly wage was Canadian $11.20 (R133.49), while South Africa’s firefighters were getting just over Canadian $4 an hour.
Given the public outrage in Canada and South Africa, and international attention, officials of Working on Fire – the state-funded programme that employs the firefighters – left South Africa yesterday for Canada to douse their own fire by engaging the disgruntled workers.
The South African firefighters were each paid R600 for a 12-hour shift while their Canadian counterparts raked in R310 an hour, or a total of R3 720, for a similar shift.
This salary disparity emerged as the reason the South African workers battling flames in Alberta downed tools just five days into their scheduled 14-day work cycle.
They were upset to discover that their Canadian counterparts were earning six times more than they did.
Questions were raised after it emerged that the firefighters’ employer, Working on Fire – which received more than R1.3 billion from government in the past three financial years – had also been paid Canadian $170, or about R2 026, per firefighter for every day worked. “The fact is, it is not acceptable to me and my government that we would have people working for wages in our province that do not align with our labour laws,” Notley was quoted on Canada’s CBC News website, which reported that she has asked ministry officials to resolve the matter. “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.”
Back home, President Jacob Zuma’s office also met with officials from the department of environmental affairs responsible for funding Working on Fire yesterday to discuss the matter.
“The president has requested Minister of Environmental Affairs Edna Molewa to intervene in resolving the matter of the 301 South African firefighters who went to assist in quelling fires in Canada,” Zuma’s office said, adding that Molewa’s department would be assisted by the department of international relations and cooperation in finding a solution to the impasse.
Meanwhile, Working on Fire spokesperson Linton Rensburg told City Press yesterday that their team was boarding a flight to Canada, where they would meet the unhappy workers and resolve the matter.
The organisation also issued a statement expressing disappointment that its workers downed tools in the middle of their mission. “We are ultimately here to save lives, the environment and property from the damages caused by wildfires. It is part of the firefighter ethos to first and foremost deliver an emergency service,” it read.
“We are extremely disappointed that we could not resolve this internally before it escalated to become an international incident. For Working on Fire, it has never been about making money. It has always been about assisting countries [such as Canada] that are facing massive and destructive wildfires.”
Working on Fire apologised to Canadians for “any inconvenience caused” and assured them that it was treating the matter with the urgency it deserved and that it remained committed to finding an amicable solution.
It was unclear if the workers would get an increase and return to work, or be sent home. In high spirits, they arrived in Canada on a chartered flight on May 29.