Canada sends singing SA firefighters home

Cape Town - Canada has asked South Africa's singing firefighters to go home after an internal pay dispute could not be resolved, Working on Fire said on Saturday.

''The Canadian government has asked us to get them out of Canada as soon as possible,” said Johan Heine, chairperson of the board of Working on Fire.

But Heine said the team has indicated that they will not leave until they receive confirmation that their pay demands will be met.

''They are demanding their money before they leave, and [that they] get confirmation that they get more money.''

''We all feel very terrible about it,'' said Heine, who has been a firefighter for 30 years.

Premier 'disturbed' by low wage rate

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) reported online that Premier of Alberta, Rachel Notley promised to intervene.

Notley said she was "disturbed" that the firefighters were earning less than her province's minimum wage, News24 reported.

CBS quoted Notley as saying that it was not acceptable to her and her government that they would have people working for wages in that do not align with their labour laws.

She said every firefighter from South Africa or anywhere else would be compensated "in accordance with our laws in this province.''

CBC reported that the South African firefighters would earn the equivalent of $4 an hour, compared with the Alberta minimum wage of $11.20 an hour. Accommodation and food is covered by Canadian authorities. The firefighters went after a tender by the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre. 

They were supposed to stay for a month after their arrival on May 30, heralded by a heartwarming YouTube video of them singing in the arrivals hall in Edmonton.

The mission might have been extended for another month after that.

A Working on Fire management team arrived in Edmonton, Canada on Saturday morning and would travel with a South African embassy official to Alberta where they are based, to negotiate and pick a date for their return.

'We aren't skimming' - Working on Fire

Heine said Working on Fire wanted to refute claims that the government funded job creation initiative was skimming from the $170 a day the Canadians were paying, and only paying firefighters $50 a day.

''They were getting R720 a day while they were there, and suddenly they are demanding R3000 a day.''

He said they earn their normal salary - between R100 to R650 a day depending on their seniority, plus a R70 a day away from base allowance, plus a R50 a day out of country bonus.

''So they get paid three times.''

The team of 301 firefighters broke into song on arrival at Edmonton on May 30 to help Canada put out a blaze in Alberta. 

In a Skype interview from Canada with News24, WOF's Trevor Wilson said the fire's perimeter was almost 1000km long - from Bloemfontein to Cape Town. It took a few days to get used to the surrounds of the natural forest, but the team was looking strong, he said.

But things quickly soured when some of the firefighters heard that local firefighters were paid $11 an hour.

Heine said although the Canadian per hour rate is higher than what they would have received, the Canadian firefighters only receive this while on the fireline.

Disciplinary action

The South Africans would have been paid their agreed amounts for every day that they were on the mercy mission, including their travel days, preparation days once there, and their rest days.

This, WoF believes comes to more than what the Canadian firefighters would earn.

The Canadian firefighters work 12 hour shifts, with three to four rest days.

''They get paid $50 from the day they leave...every day, regardless of if they work or not.''

WoF thought this formula was fairer on the firefighters.

When they get home, they will face internal disciplinary action over the sudden strike.

'People in emergency services are paramount and are not supposed to strike,'' said Heine, a firefighter of 30 years.

''We would like them to stay, but I think there's no chance.''

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