Edmonton

South African firefighters in pay dispute to leave Fort McMurray early

The South African government is sending a senior management team to Alberta to deal with pay complaints of 300 firefighters and to help with their return back home.

South African officials flying to Edmonton to iron out 'confusion among our firefighters'

A group that employs 300 South African firefighters on loan to Alberta to battle the Fort McMurray blaze says it is bringing its workers home after they complained about what they are being paid. (The Canadian Press/HO-CNW Group/Air Canada)

The South African government is sending a senior management team to Alberta to help bring home around 300 firefighters who have been involved in a dispute over pay.

The firefighters became a sensation around the world for video that captured their singing and dancing at the Edmonton airport when they arrived to help fight the Fort McMurray wildfire.

South African officials were expected to arrive in Edmonton on Friday to straighten out what they describe in a news release as "confusion among our firefighters in Canada."

But the delegation will also be arranging the "demobilization of our firefighters and their safe return back home." 

The South Africa firefighters refused to work Wednesday.

On Thursday, the firefighters were still not on duty, but they gathered at the work camp where they're based north of Fort McMurray.

South African firefighters play pool at a work camp north of Fort McMurray. About 300 firefighters are refusing to work over a pay dispute. (Name withheld by request)

The firefighters became upset when a South African broadcast quoted Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper story that suggested they're being paid between $15 and $21 an hour.

In fact, their contract reveals they're only making $50 for a 12-hour day on a 14-day cycle.

Of that, only $15 a day is directly paid to the firefighters, with the balance to be paid within six months of their return to South Africa.

A South African government news release makes it clear the amount of $21 an hour quoted in the media is "incorrect and was never agreed to with anyone."

It also states that what the firefighters make in Canada is on top of what they make at home.

That ranges from about 2,400 rand a month (the equivalent of $170 Cdn) to 14,000 rand (about $1,200 Cdn) for a crew leader.

The firefighters are employed by the South African government job creation program Working on Fire.

All contract details were "discussed with firefighters before their departure to Canada and everyone signed the agreement," the program said in a statement. 

The agreement acknowledges accommodation and meals are provided by Canadian authorities.

Meanwhile, the Alberta government said the controversy is not affecting firefighting efforts in Fort McMurray.

The province said that the Fort McMurray fire is now 70 per cent contained, with 2,000 firefighters involved in the effort.

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