South Africa’s “singing firefighters” have returned home after a pay dispute derailed their mission to help fight the Fort McMurray wildfire.
The teams arrived late Monday night in Johannesburg just over two weeks after their arrival in Canada.
On May 29, nearly 300 firefighters were deployed to Canada by the South African organization, Working on Fire, which is part of the country’s extended public works program run through the Department of Environmental Affairs.
The firefighters arrived in Alberta to a warm welcome as they danced and sang through the airport.
“I’m kind of excited,” South African firefighter M.J. Letwaba said at the time. “I’m going to learn new stuff.”
This is not the first time South African firefighters have been recruited to help battle Canadian blazes. In 2015 a delegation arrived to help fight forest fires on the Alberta-B.C. border.
That arrangement seemed to go smoothly, but this time the relationship hit a rough patch when firefighters discovered that 70 per cent of their pay was going to be withheld until their return home and they were being paid less than the $21 per hour, according to reports in Africa.
On June 8, the South African firefighters refused to work and threatened to leave Fort McMurray.
In actuality the firefighters were making $50 a day (on top of their usual South African wages) of which they would get $15 per day while stationed in Canada and the remaining $35, per each day worked, upon their return home.
“This was discussed with firefighters before their departure to Canada and everyone signed this agreement,” the Working on Fire statement said.
“We want to emphasize the intended beneficial experience of this deployment for these young South Africans.”
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said the firefighters should be paid about $170 a day, or $21.25 an hour for an eight-hour shift, according to the province’s contract with the agency.
Alberta would also be paying for food and lodging.
“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,” said Notley.
Minimum wage in Alberta is $11.20 an hour.
Last Thursday, Working on Fire sought to address “confusion” around payment of its workers, by providing details of the agreement they signed.
However, the dispute between firefighters and Working on Fire could not be resolved and an agreement to demobilize the South African teams and return home was made.
Working on Fire has made assurances they will conduct an internal inquiry into what led to the dispute in Canada.