After only five days on the job, a group of 300 black South African firemen sent to help Canada fight the ongoing Alberta wildfires, have gone on strike.
The firefighters garnered international media attention when they touched down in Canada last month, singing and dancing as they landed, as part of a “payback for Canadian opposition to Apartheid.”
Now, however, the Africans say they are “confused” over how much they are to be paid for their work, even though all the contracts were worked out and individually signed in South Africa before they departed.
According to a statement issued by Working on Fire, the South African government-funded program which organized the deployment, management is “extremely disappointed that we couldn’t resolve this internally before it escalated to become an international incident.”
Working on Fire is, according to its website, a “job-creation program” which employs more than “5000 young men and women” drawn from “marginalized communities and trained in fire awareness and education, prevention, and fire suppression skills.”
All of the firefighters have been “demobilized” since the strike, and will be flown home, their managers say.
The dispute began just north of Fort McMurray when a team of 60 of the Africans met with one of their managers on Tuesday morning this week.
At the impromptu meeting in the field, the firefighters claimed to be astonished to learn that their pay, set at (Canadian) $50 per day, would not all be paid to them while they were in Canada.
Of course, this had been spelled out to them before they left South Africa, and each one had signed a written contract in which the payment plan was specified.
The agreement which they signed stated that they would be paid $15 per day, with the remaining $35 per day being paid out to them when they returned to South Africa.
Working on Fire said that the reason why the $35 would only be paid upon the Africans’ return to South Africa was to “prevent them wasting it in Canada.”
The extra pay is in addition to their South African salaries, which are still being paid into their bank accounts back home. In addition, the Canadian Authorities are covering their accommodation and meals, so in theory they have no living expenses whatsoever while they are in Canada.
The fluctuating exchange rate between the South African Rand and the Canadian dollar also foxed the Africans, who found that they were suddenly being paid “more” in Rand than what they had expected, as the Rand continues its slide into junk status.
The discrepancy in exchange rates, however, led to false rumors among the Africans that they had received a pay increase as well.
“It was pretty clear that within minutes [of this week’s informal meeting] they had a mutiny on their hand,” a source told the media in Canada.
The very next day, all 300 firefighters went on strike, creating an immediate staffing crisis in the ongoing fight against the massive fire. Canadian officials had planned on the Africans being ready to cover one sector in the fight against the massive fire, and were left scrambling to plug the gap.
The Working on Fire statement went on to say that they had previously completed “numerous international deployments in the past,” and that they had always agreed “on remuneration with our firefighters when going on deployments of this nature and, as in this instance, formal contracts were signed.”
“We are currently investigating the matter internally and wish to apologize to both the Canadian government and Canadian citizens for any inconvenience this may have caused.”
Upon their arrival in Canada, the Africans danced for the Canadian media.
When the Africans first arrived in Canada, the controlled media enthusiastically welcomed them, and proudly announced that the reason why they had come to Canada was to “pay back” that nation for its support of the anti-Apartheid movement.
An article in Canada’s iPolitics journal, titled “Why 300 South Africans are fighting to save Fort McMurray: ‘Today we are paying back‘,” said that the South African government “sees it as re-paying a debt to the Canadian people for their support for the anti-apartheid struggle.”
“As South Africans we feel indebted to the Canadian people,” a senior South African official said at the departure ceremony. “Remember that these are the people who stood on our side in our times of trouble, so today we are paying back.”