Firefighter saga causes a labour blaze
The South African government has undermined the wages and conditions of local government workers and severely compromised the local trade union movement.
This is the conclusion of several local trade unionists following the furore involving the 301 South African firefighters who went on strike in Canada.
The firefighters, sent to the Alberta province to help counter a massive wildfire blaze, stopped work when they realised they were being paid nearly 70% less than their Canadian counterparts.
They promptly laid down their hoses and implements. They were supported both by local firefighters and by the province’s social democrat prime minister, Rachel Notley.
As the premier pointed out, no workers, no matter where they come from, should earn less than Alberta’s minimum wage while working in the province.
The minimum wage in Alberta is $11.20 (R172) an hour. The South African firefighters, risking their lives doing the same job in the same territory, were being paid a little more than $4 an hour.
Additional payments were going to the company that employs them, Work on Fire. It is a subsidiary of the Kishugu Group, originally formed in Mbombela (then Nelspruit) in 1986 by Johan Heine and Chris de Bruno Austin as the FFA Group.
They are now joint managing directors of Kishugu. This umbrella organisation won an Extended Public Works Programme tender to recruit, train and establish firefighting units to combat forest and veld fires.
“We now realise that this was back-door privatisation,” agrees Papikie Mohale, spokesperson for the Cosatu-aligned SA Municipal Workers’ Union.
“We should take the blame for letting it go so far.”
While unions and commentators failed to keep an eye on details of the Extended Public Works Programme, Fighting on Fire extended its scope, offering “integrated fire management services” to companies and governments in Europe, South America and Australia.
At the same time it set up what appears to have been a putative international rapid response veld and forest firefighting unit.
It was this unit that was despatched to Canada this month and which went on strike.
Its members did so when they realised that the bulk of the income generated by their risking their lives was probably accruing to the company that employed them.
International firefighters are also aware that there is constant pressure on governments at various levels to cut costs.
And private companies are also keen to move into firefighting and the related emergency medical service to provide new revenue streams.
Yet firefighting and the emergency medical service – critical to the wellbeing of everyone – should never be in the hands of private firms.
That is a matter of principle for firefighting organisations around the world.
At issue is the fact that private companies have as their priority – however much they may try to disguise this – the making of profit.
The sole priority for firefighters and the emergency medical service is the preservation and safety of life and property.
Profit, with its cost-cutting requirements, should never come into it. That, in essence, is what the Canadian fracas is all about.
We would do well to pay heed to it.