South African president wades into Fort McMurray firefighter pay dispute

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South African President Jacob Zuma has waded into the murky waters surrounding the payment of his firefighters sent to help fight the Fort McMurray wildfire.

In a press release, the president requested that his minister of the environment intervene to resolve the firefighters wage dispute.

The firefighters were sent to Alberta by the Working on Fire organization, part of South Africa’s extended public works program, run through the Department of Environmental Affairs (DEA).

“The DEA will be assisted by the Department of International Relations and Cooperation in finding a solution to the impasse,” Zuma’s statement read. “South Africa warmly welcomes the opportunity provided to South African youth to work abroad.”


South African President Jacob Zuma said that he has directed his minister of environmental affairs to intervene in the South African firefighter wage dispute. (Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters)

As the firefighters prepared to depart from the Edmonton International Airport en route to South Africa Sunday evening, the pay increase earlier this week by Premier Rachel Notley is now out of Alberta’s hands.

Officials with the Alberta government told CBC that senior officials with the South African government have confirmed that the pay increase will happen. It is still uncertain when the firefighters will receive the money.

Mike Long, director of communications for the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, said Sunday that the time and place of payment for the firefighters is “between South Africa and their employees.”

He added: “This is an unfortunate situation, the South African firefighters performed well in 2015 while in Alberta.”

A hero’s welcome

The firefighters arrived in Edmonton May 29 to a hero’s welcome, with people cheering for them and personally thanking them for coming. They performed traditional dances and chants, winning over Canadians across the country.

RAW: South African firefighters sing and dance at the airport2:50

However, when it came to fighting fires the South Africans spent a limited time on the front lines. They stopped showing up for work on June 8 after learning that a broadcast in their home country stated they were making $21 Cdn an hour, when they understood they were earning far less.

In fact, they are making $50 a day on top of their South African wages. This was promised by the South African government-funded program Working on Fire organization, which successfully filled a tender issued by the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre (CIFFC).

“I can say right now that every hour that every firefighter from South Africa… will be compensated in accordance with our laws in this province.” – Rachel Notley

Notley stepped in during the wage dispute, promising the firefighters will receive wages in accordance with Alberta law. The minimum wage in the province is $11.20.

“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,” Notley said Thursday.

The firefighters originally said they wouldn’t leave Fort McMurray until the pay dispute was solved.

On Saturday, they filed into buses en route to CFB Edmonton, where they spent the night. Sunday night they filed into Edmonton’s airport in a quiet procession, much different than the celebratory arrival.

Raising spirits

While in a northern camp during the dispute, the firefighters gained fame for seemingly non-stop singing.

Lori Styles, who was working in the Wapasu Creek East camp outside of Fort McMurray, said that every time she would return from work she would see the South Africans singing — not in protest, but for each other.

“It wasn’t really a protest like we would in Canada,” she said. “They’re not waving flags or different posters or that kind of thing.

“It was more to sing and keep your spirits up, basically. That’s what their culture is all about, I think.”

South African firefighters sing at Wapasu Creek East0:46

She said the atmosphere at the camp was buoyed by their presence, and others would join in with their songs to show they weren’t alone.

Styles, who plays the drums, would join in with the bongos.

“It was our way to kind of say that we care about them and we all love them and we were wishing that they weren’t going through this hard time,” she said.

“They come all the way here and it’s important for them to come and feel part of Canada, to get basically equal pay. And when I found out it was $50 a day, it was quite shocking.”

In a statement, Working on Fire said “it’s part of the firefighter ethos to first and foremost deliver an emergency service. We are extremely disappointed that we couldn’t resolve this internally before it escalated to become an international incident.”

But the efforts of Working on Fire have never been about “making money,” the statement added.

Working on Fire did not respond to CBC’s requests for comment. A reporter at the Edmonton airport Sunday night was denied access to the firefighters.

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South African president wades into Fort McMurray firefighter pay dispute

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