South African firefighters in Alberta embroiled in pay dispute

The 300 firefighters that arrived in Alberta, Canada on May 29 to assist with the huge fire near Fort McMurray refused to work Wednesday over a dispute about their pay. When they were first deployed the Globe and Mail wrote:

After a month in Canada, they will take home the equivalent of about $1,500 each. It doesn’t seem like much, but it’s 10 times more than their normal monthly stipend in the training program. It will help many of the firefighters to get out of shacks and build new brick houses, get driver’s licenses or enter postsecondary education.

Below is an excerpt from an article at CBCNews on Wednesday:


“…Bitiro Moseki is one of the firefighters based at a camp north of Fort McMurray. He said they are being paid $15 a day.

“It’s fifteen not even per hour, it’s fifteen per day,” said Moseki.

While that may seem hard to believe, given that Alberta expects to move to a $15-an-hour minimum wage by 2018, a contract thought to be between the firefighters and their employer seems to back up the claim.

It shows the firefighters signed a contract that stated they would be paid a total of $50 a day, split into two payments.

The contract agrees to pay them $15 a day now, with the balance of $35 a day paid out within six months of their return to South Africa.

Moseki agreed firefighters did sign the contract, but said they have since been unsettled by media reports claiming they’re making much more money.

He said news articles quoted the South African government program that employs the crews claiming the workers are making between $15 and $21 an hour.

“We are not here for money, we are here to assist you,” said Moseki, adding the firefighters have turned to the South African commissioner in Canada for help to resolve the issue.

The contract does make it clear the money the firefighters are being paid is over and above their home wages, which were not disclosed.

The provincial government confirmed the South African firefighters did not work Wednesday because of the pay dispute.

“We contract with the South African government based on a rate per day per firefighter,” Alberta Agriculture and Forestry said in a statement. “We’re paying the 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 ministry said the firefighters are employed by the Government of South Africa…”

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, Bill Gabbert now writes about it from the Black Hills. Google+

22 thoughts on “South African firefighters in Alberta embroiled in pay dispute”

  1. On average they get paid circa 4500 ZAR pm. At 15$ a day its about 5175 zars pm. Then there is still the issue of 35$ a day yet to be paid. So they should get their normal pay here and their Canuck $s. Its more than 4 months pay in 1 month. Now they want to complain? I don’t get it. For these and many many other reasons, I do not support the South African WOF lot. Amatuers and wannabes ALWAYS unavailable when your fire season readiness planning has included them and now the canucks are feeling it too. My deepest sympathy to Canada, these freelancers are not the best South Africa has to offer. Real Firefighters don’t ever strike on emergency scenes.

  2. This is so wrong on so many levels.

    So Alberta is paying the South African firefighters $15/day because that is good pay for a South African. That is obscene.

    Alberta, by importing these new never before been on a fire firefighters was able to avoid the hiring of 300 experienced North American Firefighters. Alberta has made it apparent that Canada is not interested in fighting wildfires but only in the theatrics of fighting fires. It is all a huge deception to the Canadian people.

    I now question the training they received and wonder if it is up to North American standards. Is the contractor that paid them making as much money on this as Alberta is saving? Are these firefighters a threat to themselves and the other firefighters on the line due to their inexperience?

    Is this going to be the new norm for Canada: enslaving impoverished green inexperienced crews to fight wildfires for $15 dollars a day?

    It is a dark day in Alberta.

    1. This is a common practice to save money regardless of the safety issues. In the U.S. they use prison crews and the firefighter only gets $1.25 an hour. That’s less than the Africans. The standard rate for contract crews in the U.S. is $39 per hour per FF, but most of that goes to the contractor.

  3. And to think I was complaining about the Forest Service’s AD Rate Plan…..

    The vast differences in pay rates for people doing the same jobs on fires is unfair and unhealthy to a fully functioning Incident Management organization. An AD worker, a Forest Service employee and a state agency firefighter, all with the same red card qualifications, skills and experience, doing the same Incident job have multifold variations in what they are paid to help suppress the fires.

    1. Gov personnel are not paid for what they do on a specific incident but for what they do for their day job. The strength in our system is that is is not position based but qual based.

      1. So on an incident, when a CalFire Engine Captain earns far more than the Forest Service Incident Commander, you would call that one of the strengths of the system?

        1. Yeah I think I am with you Walt, I don’t see that as a strength. On the devil’s advocate side, if firefighters were paid for what role they were playing on a specific incident, can you imagine the chaos and politics that would ensue? People would be fighting to be an IC or SRB, and type four fires would have three divisions. Would we be constantly training each firefighter to perform at the next level or deferring to expertise if pay was tied to your incident role?

          1. Perhaps this company has it right and this model could be adopted in North America. It would drastically reduce the costs of wildland firefighting. You could pay a basic firefighter $50/day and an Incident Commander $100/day.

            Training young men trying to improve their lives to fight wildfires internationally has many advantages to them and budget strapped governments. As long as the same job gets done who cares?

            Perhaps I should look to South Africa to staff my engines.

  4. A quote from the referenced article: “The last thing we want to do is to be perceived as providing slave labour,” he said. “We’re not about undercutting Canadians or providing cheap labour. We’re not there to take away people’s jobs.”

    They dont want the “perception” but it was the intent all along. You cant tell me that Alberta did not know the firefighters were getting a $15/day per dieum and a $3/hour wage paid months in the rear pardon the pun. Unfortunately Canada is learning about importing cheap labor from America.

  5. Another mystery to solve: Does the South African government consider these to be equivalent to Hotshot crews, or is this just something the media thinks? One portion of the Working on Fire website seems to suggest this; under TRAINING “After passing stringent fitness tests, recruits are put trough rigorous training based on national and international standards, which equip them to work as wildfire firefighters. They are then deployed in “hotshot” crews of 25 under supervision of crew leaders at bases near fire prone areas in South Africa.
    ( )

  6. I’ve heard a different version of this story on CBC. Who knows what the truth is?

    According to this article they are making their regular wages in addition to another $50 per day. Doesn’t seem too unreasonable, and they did seem to be fully aware of what they were agreeing to before getting on the plane.

    As to the comments about them being untrained, never-seen-a-fire before… They did work in both Alberta and BC last year and I’ve heard from colleagues that worked with them that while they weren’t as good as our full-time government crews, they were decent and they did know what they were doing (probably a challenge to work in a totally different fuel type and terrain setting).

    I agree with the comment that it is poor taste to strike while at the scene of a fire. This should have been resolved before arriving or after returning. Seems a little opportunistic but again, who knows what the real truth here is? I feel for the AB employees who are now dealing with this on top of the significant crisis they’ve already got.

  7. So.. the basic question here is HOW does the govt. of Alberta avoid labor laws by allowing the payment of less than min. wage required..? Labor laws are for the area they govern.. people can come in and out of those areas.. the laws are the same for all of them.. So.. the basic answer has to be that the govt. of Alberta broke labor laws when agreeing to allow labor to be provided for work at a price that could no way cover the cost of min. wage. Since they agree to the wage, it is an admittance.. Their wage back home does not matter.. the Govt of Alberta has to follow labor laws.. Until someone comes up with an explanation about this one question.. not much else matters. Obviously they are trained.. but where is the agreement that allows sub standards wages?? It has to exist somewhere.

  8. Let’s say that the exchange rate for a firefighter in Canada is 500$/day (it is not, but close enough). The receiving province pays that fee to the lending province. When the lending province pays its firefighters, it pays them in accordance to the labour law and collective agreements that are negotiated by the lending province with their firefighters. This contract is well known in advance and agreed to by everyone involved. Let’s say for argument’s sake that the take-home pay is 350$/day for the firefighter. The remaining 150$ would cover over-head expenses incurred by the lending agency.

    I think the same reasoning applies to the South-African firefighters. All contracts were signed and agreed to by all parties, except they didn’t anticipate that SA firefighters would compare their 50$/day wage to that of a Canadian or US firefighter.

    SA authorities probably had their firefighters sign a 50$/day contract thinking it was fair, considering their daily wages in South Africa, not knowing the going rate per day in Canada. SA firefighters signed their contracts thinking it was fair, considering their daily wages in South Africa, not knowing the going rate per day in Canada. This thinking was crushed once they were able to compare their wages to the one that their tool-swinging neighbor was getting.

    I don’t think anyone was dishonest or wanted to take advantage of a situation. I merely think that agreements were made with good intentions, but out of ignorance of the reality, things were missed.

  9. In addition to the bad publicity over “slave labour” and a labour strike during a wildfire response, the cost of sending 300 SA firefighters to Canada looks to be pretty pricey, even if the cost were as low as $1000/ticket. A good idea perhaps, but a trainwreck on several levels; amazing things happen when bureaucracies collide. Not knowing the going rate for a Canadian firefighter before the SA firefighters were launched is a pretty basic missing piece of information, considering that it’s no surprise they were going to start comparing salaries. In many ways, firefighters are the same all over the world.

    1. Alberta knew exactly what it was doing by hiring these people. They were replacing the experienced North American firefighters with crews of obviously questionable training at 10% of the pay.

      I know of allot of highly experienced Canadian firefighters who are sitting at home right now because of this. The South African firefighters were not hired because of a scarcity of firefighters. No it appears Alberta wanted to provide a body count of warm pulses on the fire line rather than hire actual fully qualified firefighters.

      When I work in Canada I have to show documentation that I am not taking a Canadian job and even with that I may not be allowed into the country. How did these guys get into the country when they are not only taking Canadian jobs, but undercutting their wages by 90%?

      Is hiring young men from the slums of Africa at $15 a day and $35 in the rear (once again pardon the pun) the future of Canadian wildland firefighting?

      The operations and communications at McMurray is a mess. It appears the accountants and not the firefighters are now running the Canadian wildland system.

  10. While it is a worthy conversation to compare rates of pay for firefighters working on the same fire, it seems that the approach here is being over-simplified and not necessarily apples-apples either. As far as the “fair” hourly rate goes that these firefighters are “taking home,” it would seem far more helpful to compare cost-of-living as well. One of the articles states that these men will be able to go home and build a brick house. I’m assuming this is something special in their culture and even if that doesn’t equate to a new house in N. America, there certainly aren’t any N. America firefighters going home to buy a new house. If I am ever needed to help in S. Africa, am I to work for what they consider a “fair” hourly rate? Not gonna happen. Are they going to pay me a comparable “cost of living wage” that will give me enough to buy a new home when I get home to America? It seems to make sense that a firefighter traveling from another region or country would get paid near their home wage rate.

    The bigger question here is whether or not someone is profiting off of these low wage workers. Are there government officials playing shell games with the extra money? It does not sound like it as they were paying a “normal” daily rate. The contractor here seems to be the one possibly taking advantage of the situation. They are collecting $170 a day for each firefighter and paying out $50, some of which will be paid well after the workers are home. Even if the Canadian government decides to pay them a “fair” wage and make this go away, this does not address the issue. There needs to be more stringent standards in the contracts they issue to ensure the middle man is not raking in huge profits off of the service of others. We have the same issue here in America.

  11. Was Alberta the province that cut its wildland fire fighting budget at the beginning of the season, saying it wouldn’t be a problem?

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