Sparks still fly­ing in fire pay feud

CityPress - - News - POLOKO TAU poloko.tau@city­press.co.za

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.

Rachel Not­ley

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