Fire­fighter saga causes a labour blaze

CityPress - - Business - Terry Bell busi­ness@city­press.co.za

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.

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