The South African government-funded program that employs firefighters now embroiled in a pay dispute in Alberta has apologized to Canadians. The program, called Working on Fire, issued a statement on Friday saying it is “extremely disappointed” the controversy could not be settled internally before it “escalated into an international incident.”
The story of 300 South African firefighters and their eventual battle over what they’re being paid has been making headlines for two weeks.
They became a big news story in Canada the moment they arrived, singing and dancing after they got off a flight the Edmonton International Airport.
A deployment of two 14-day rotations had been planned, but the firefighters did not even complete the first rotation, after they did not report to work Wednesday in a protest over their $50 a day pay, which works out to about $4 an hour.
‘Never been about making money’
In the statement, the program that employs the men and women who came to fight the Fort McMurray fire said, “it’s part of the firefighter ethos to first and foremost deliver an emergency service.” The statement said Working on Fire “has never been about making money.”
The program said it wanted to apologize to “both the Canadian government and Canadian citizens for any inconvenience.”
Pongukwenza Nene, 29, is one of the firefighters currently staying in a camp north of Fort McMurray.
He said many of the firefighters are very poor. And even though they are still being paid at home in South Africa, the $50 daily wage they’re being paid while in Alberta simply isn’t fair.
“I’m very, very, very sad and very worried,” said Nene, adding that his big concern now is the consequences he and the other firefighters may face after speaking out.
Working on Fire said reports in the South African media that the firefighters would face discipline on their return home were incorrect.
Philani Innocent, 28, is also anxious about the reaction of Working on Fire officials, who are now investigating the matter.
All the firefighters have agreed, Innocent said, that even though their employer planned to take them back home to South Africa, none would leave until the pay dispute was resolved.
“We are not going anywhere,” he said. “We are still living here.”
Innocent said he hoped the matter could be resolved so the firefighters could get back to work in Alberta.
He said he was encouraged by the statement of Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, who said Thursday she was disturbed to hear what the firefighters were making, which she described as “not acceptable.”
Notley said she would direct ministry officials to make sure the South African firefighters are “compensated in accordance with our laws in this province.”
It’s unclear how the provincial government would make that happen, but the premier said she thought the firefighters would be earning $170 a day, which would be about $14 an hour.
The Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre, which negotiated the contract with the group Working on Fire, said the $170 per day that had been agreed to was not all take home pay, because expenses had to be factored in.
Hoping for ‘good and amicable’ solution
That $170 is “a flat rate,” said Kim Connors, executive director of the centre, “that takes into account their regular salary, their $50 a day stipend, plus payroll burden costs, administrative costs for Working on Fire, training to have the staff prepared to come here.”
A spokesperson for Notley said Friday the expectation was always that any additional overhead costs would be minimal and the firefighters would receive $170 per day or close to it.
A senior manager from Working on Fire was expected to arrive in Edmonton late Friday to find an “amicable solution” to the impasse.
The program stressed remuneration for the firefighters had been agreed to before deployment and that formal contracts were signed.
The statement said the program wanted the public to know the matter is being “treated with the utmost importance.”
Working on Fire could not say when the firefighters would be taken home but said that would happen as soon as possible.
The $50 a day was considered to be a stipend, the program said, as the firefighters’ accommodation and food would be covered by Canadian authorities.
It also noted the firefighters continue to be paid their salaries in South Africa while deployed to Alberta.
The Alberta Government said it would reach out to the South African delegation during their time in the province to try to get to the bottom of the issue.
Cheryl Oates, the premier’s spokesperson, said the government would make sure the firefighters are paid at least the minimum wage for the time they worked in the province, which is $11.20 an hour.
Connors said discussions would be held among all parties to make sure “this doesn’t happen again.”
He said it was a shame the issue had blown up to such a degree.
“I just feel very bad for everybody involved, and I hope it comes to a good and amicable conclusion.”