300 South African firefighters to leave Fort McMurray early after wage dispute

Premier Rachel Notley said the government of Alberta is paying South African firefighters roughly $170 per day plus expenses and she expects the money to go to the workers.

“That’s what we anticipated would essentially form the basis of what they were earning and so now we’re going to look into it to ensure they are paid,” Notley said Thursday afternoon.

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    “It’s not acceptable to me and to my government that we would have people working for wages in our province that do not align with our labour laws.”

    The comments come as the agency that employs 300 South African firefighters who have been helping battle the Fort McMurray wildfire said it is bringing the workers home early after a pay dispute.

    In a statement released Thursday, Working on Fire said it has dispatched a management team to address the firefighters’ concerns and assist with their “smooth demobilization.”

    The firefighters have not been working for the past couple of days, according to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre, which coordinates international firefighting response.

    “Alberta has been able to move on with resources without them so their deployment will be finished,” said Kim Connors, the CIFFC executive director.

    READ MORE: Some South Africans leave Fort McMurray fire fight, questions linger over pay

    Working on Fire said all the firefighters signed an agreement that they would earn their normal stipend, plus any overtime, as members of South Africa’s public works department. They will also receive $50 Canadian a day in two separate payments: $15 while in Canada and $35 after returning home.

    However, some of the South African firefighters were concerned they may never receive the second payment.

    “There is no guarantee,” said Ditiro Moseki, who has been a firefighter in South African for four years. “We feel very bad and we don’t know what to do with the situation. What I’m hoping to happen is for them to pay us, that’s what I’m hoping for.”

    Watch below: South African firefighters break into song and dance upon arrival in Edmonton 

    Moseki said he and some of his co-workers saw a news story from South Africa that said their employer is paying them $21 an hour.

    “So, comparing the $21 per hour to that $50 that they are going to give us a day – there is a serious difference there.”

    READ MORE: ‘We are ready for it’: South African firefighters land in Edmonton, eager to help battle Fort McMurray wildfire

    In its statement, Working on Fire said the $21-per-hour rate was never part of the agreement.

    Connors said it appears the situation is the result of a “series of misunderstandings” between the firefighters and Working on Fire. He said Canadian officials have encouraged Working on Fire to clarify the situation with its staff.

    Notley said while it’s a dispute between the firefighters and their employer, she maintained every firefighter will be compensated in accordance with Alberta’s laws.

    “I will be directing officials to ensure that any further contracts with these kinds of agencies outside of our jurisdiction ensure that the minimum standards of Alberta law are honoured.”

    A spokesperson with Alberta Foresty said Wednesday the province is aware of the wage dispute.

    “We have a contract with the South African government based on a rate per day per firefighter,” Renato Gandia, press secretary for Alberta Forestry, said in a statement.

    “We’re paying that rate. It’s our understanding these firefighters are being paid what they agreed to before they arrived but if there is a disagreement here, it’s between the firefighters and their employer and not with the Government of Alberta.”

    The firefighters arrived in Edmonton on May 29. At the time, a spokesperson for Alberta Wildfire said the crew would do a 14-day rotation and then their involvement in fighting the blaze would be reassessed.

    Ditiro Moseki has been a firefighter for four years in South Africa, and came to Canada to fight the northern Alberta wildfires. June 8, 2016.

    Supplied

    There are 300 firefighters from South Africa in Alberta to help fight the Fort McMurray wildfire.

    Courtesy/Working on Fire

    A group picture of the South African firefighters.

    Courtesy/Working on Fire

    About 300 firefighters from South African arrived in Edmonton Sunday, May 29, 2016.

    Julia Wong/Global News

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    With files from Julia Wong, Global News and . 

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