Edmonton

South African firefighters in pay dispute leave Fort McMurray

The singing South African firefighters that flew in to help battle "the beast" wildfire, only to get embroiled in a pay dispute, are going home. One man who was staying at the same work camp said they never stopped singing despite a pay dispute.

Even while holed up at work camp, fighting over pay, the firefighters never stopped singing

The South African firefighters boarded six buses en route to Edmonton Saturday afternoon. (Supplied)

The singing South African firefighters that flew in to help battle "the beast" wildfire, only to get embroiled in a pay dispute, are going home. 

The 281 firefighters boarded six buses on Saturday afternoon that took them from the work camp where they were staying to CFB Edmonton. They will spend the night at the garrison before flying out Sunday. 

The last time the firefighters were at the Edmonton International Airport they won the hearts of Canadians by performing traditional South African chants and dances after touching down.

Song and dance at the EIA

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281 firefighters from South Africa landed in Edmonton Sunday, and took time for a quick song before heading north to help fight the Fort McMurray wildfire. 0:33

Capt. Denny Brown, a public affairs officer with CFB, said that the garrison anticipated they would host the firefighters on their way out, but it just happened sooner than they thought. 

"It's a similar situation when they first arrived in Canada — we will be providing them with barrack rooms on their passage through Edmonton back to South Africa," said Brown.

The dispute

The firefighters stopped working on Wednesday after they heard about a report in their home country that suggested they were being paid between $15 and $21 an hour. They were actually making $50 for a 12-hour work day, according to their contract. 

Working on Fire, the South African government-funded program that employs firefighters, successfully bid on a tender issued by the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre (CIFFC). 

The dispute left many of the South Africans firefighters, who are predominantly poor, feeling "robbed."

Some of the South African firefighters pose for a photo before departing to Canada. (Air Canada)

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."

They also wrote that Working on Fire has never been about "making money."

Some of the firefighters are worried about disciplinary action from Working on Fire upon their return to South Africa.

'Not acceptable"

Alberta Premier Rachel Notley stated earlier in the week that it was "not acceptable" that firefighters were not making wages in accordance with Alberta labour laws.

"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," she said on Thursday. 

She thought the firefighters would be earning closer to $170 a day — $14 an hour. 

South African firefighters play pool at a work camp north of Fort McMurray earlier this week. (Name withheld by request)

The CIFFC, which negotiated the contract with 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.

A Working on Fire official arrived in Alberta late Friday to try and find an "amicable solution," after the firefighters said they would not leave Fort McMurray until the pay dispute was resolved.

"We are not going anywhere," a firefighter said on Friday. "We are still living here." 

A man staying at the work camp with the South Africans said throughout all the turmoil leading up to them leaving on Saturday one constant remained: They never stopped singing.

South African firefighters sing at Wapasu Creek East

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At a camp north of Fort McMurray, South African firefighters sing as they wait for their pay dispute to be resolved. 0:46

With files from Gareth Hampshire and Roberta Bell

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