The 300 South African firefighters deployed to Canada are set to be brought home early after they reportedly went on strike on Wednesday morning over a pay dispute.
Working on Fire spokesman Linton Rensburg said a team of three managers left for Canada on Thursday night.
“The management team are going over to address the firefighers’ concerns and help with the demobilisation,” he said. “Their plan is to bring our firefighters back home. I’m not sure if it’ll be immediate.”
The firefighters from the Western Cape were lauded as heroes and became overnight darlings of the international media after a video of them singing at the Edmonton airport on 30 May went viral. They were deployed to Canada’s Fort McMurray region where a wildfire has been raging for over a month.
Now, it has been reported that all 300 of them have downed tools and refused to work over a pay dispute.
Rensburg blamed the dispute on an article published in Canadian newspaper the Globe and Mail on June 1. The article said that the South African firefighters would be given a salary bump so that they were being paid similarly to their Canadian counterparts and their work wouldn’t be seen as “slave labour”.
According to Rensburg, the article was incorrect and may have given the firefighters false expectations of their pay while in Canada, but he could not confirm any details surrounding the strike.
“The reports in the media were incorrect,” he said. “We don’t exactly know the full details. That’s why we have the management team on the way there to get to the bottom of it.”
Before leaving for Canada, the 300 firefighters signed contracts specifying their pay and benefits for the trip. Their South African employers would pay them their normal salaries. Canadian authorities would provide all accommodation and meals, and would pay Working on Fire a rate of Canadian $50 per firefighter per day. This would be paid out to the firefighters as a $15 daily allowance while in Canada, with the remaining $35 being paid out within six months of their return home.
But after they arrived in Canada, the Globe and Mail reported that Llewellyn Pillay, managing director of Working on Fire, said their salaries would be increased to $15 to $21 per hour – a massive increase from $50 per day.
This was supposedly due to an intervention by the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre (CIFFC), which allegedly told Pillay that they couldn’t pay South African rates, because the pay had to be “fair and equitable from a Canadian standard”.
“It opened our eyes,” Pillay was quoted as saying. “It’s a much more ethical way of doing it. It’s the right way to operate, morally. We had never thought about it – we were just happy to have the chance to go to Canada. Now we realize we can’t assume that South Africa’s rates are at parity.”
In an interview with the Globe and Mail on Wednesday, Pillay said they wanted to respect their Canadian colleagues.
“The last thing we want to do is to be perceived as providing slave labour,” he said. “We’re not about undercutting Canadians or providing cheap labour. We’re not there to take away people’s jobs.”