SA firefighters' strike in Canada: Working on Fire burns its bridges

‘Legitimate concerns’: South African firefighters create a firebreak outside Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada. (Topher Seguin, Reuters)

‘Legitimate concerns’: South African firefighters create a firebreak outside Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada. (Topher Seguin, Reuters)

Lucrative North American disaster relief contracts worth tens of millions of rands are now in jeopardy after firefighters employed by South Africa’s Working on Fire programme staged a weeklong strike over unequal pay. 

At the end of last month, Working on Fire deployed 300 firefighters to Alberta in Canada, where wildfires have been raging for more than a month. The South African workers, who were earning R750 a day, downed tools three days into their work after learning that their Canadian counterparts were being paid R3 000 a day. Things really heated up when the local firefighters demanded the same rate. 

Working on Fire is an expanded public works programme run by the Kishugu Group and the department of environmental affairs.
It was started in 2004 and has deployed teams to fire emergencies across the world. It employs about 5 000 people and trains unemployed young people in how to fight wildfires in different environments. 

This week, Working on Fire chairperson Johan Heine said he does not believe the workers were being underpaid, adding that the strike had damaged their reputation in the United States and Canada.

“The South African firefighters were definitely not exploited. The total package received by our guys was not calculated, only their stipend. The opportunity to redeploy to Canada and maybe the United States is now out the window. It makes the redeployment very difficult. Mexico and Chile have been roped in because we lost out,” he said.

Heine said the firefighters had failed to take into consideration the exchange rate and cost of living locally, which in effect meant that they were “actually getting paid twice as much”.  “They also did not consider the buying power of the money that they get. The Canadian cost of living is double what it is in South Africa. If you are getting half of what Canada gets and you spend it in South Africa, your buying power is the same. Though the payment is slightly less, the buying power is more.”

Heine and his colleagues at Kishugu, which has a majority shareholding in the government-sponsored company, were lambasted on social media as news of the strike made international headlines after the Alberta premier said the salaries were not adequate by that country’s standards. Kishugu was accused of exploiting black workers and of keeping some of the funds. Heine dismissed the claims. “That’s a ridiculous accusation because we are a full BEE [black employment empowerment] level two value-added company. Working on Fire is an 80% black-run programme. Obviously the company is paid a management fee and that’s public knowledge. Nine percent of the fee is for management.” 

The Mail & Guardian has seen a copy of the Working on Fire budget for the deployment of the 300 workers, which shows that Kishugu was due to receive R19 318 453 for the 34-day mission, of which R10 198 377 was set aside to pay salaries. 

“Even if there was a surplus of money, the whole design of international deployment is meant to create that surplus to go back into the programme to create more jobs. It’s designed to earn foreign currency into South Africa for the people’s benefit,” Heine said.

The firefighters secured public support for their strike when the difference in earnings emerged, but it’s not clear whether any of the 300 workers will be sanctioned. A commission of inquiry instituted by the department environmental affairs and Kishugu is due to begin on Monday.

“The inquiry finishes in two weeks. After the report is released, we will decide on whether or not to press disciplinary charges,” Heine said.

The company has been reluctant to place blame on its own employees for the fallout after the strike. But Kishugu admits that workers may have had a legitimate reason to down tools, saying its management had not responded properly to their grievances.

“We are very sad that our management couldn’t persuade them and did not convey the right message about how much they would be paid, not just the stipend. 

“There was a total misunderstanding. When you put yourself in their shoes, it’s probably legitimate to do what they did,” Heine said.

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