EDMONTON — South African firefighters who joined the battle against the Fort McMurray blaze will get every penny they were promised, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said Thursday.
"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," Notley said in Calgary.
The South African group that employs the 300 workers said they would be leaving after only a week on the job because of a pay dispute. The organization Working on Fire said senior managers were coming to Canada to address concerns and oversee the return.
Notley said the province contracted with the agency to pay the firefighters roughly $170 a day. That works out to $21.25 an hour for an eight-hour shift. Food, lodging and travel were also covered by the government.
A group of 300 South African firefighters arrived in Alberta last month to help battle the Fort McMurray wildfire. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)
Firefighter Ditiro Moseki told Edmonton radio station CHED that he's been working 12-hour shifts and getting paid $50 a day. He said a news story he and some of his co-workers saw from South Africa says the employer is paying them $21 an hour.
"Comparing the $21 per hour to that $50 that they are going to give us today, there is a serious difference there," he said.
Working on Fire says it never agreed to pay anyone $21 an hour.
The agency said in a statement that the agreement called for the firefighters to earn the stipend, plus any overtime, they usually receive back home. They were to receive an extra $50 a day for working in Canada — $15 up front and $35 when they return.
Spokesman Linton Rensburg said in an email to The Canadian Press that the normal stipend is the Canadian equivalent of between $200 and $1,200 a month depending on rank.
Rensburg was not immediately available to discuss the apparent discrepancies after Notley released Alberta's figures.
"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."
The premier said her government is investigating.
"Alberta engaged in a contract that was constructed with the understanding that it would facilitate minimum levels of pay to those firefighters," she said.
"We were disturbed to learn very recently the reports that that has not carried through to the firefighters. While it is a dispute between the firefighters and their agency ... 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."
Labour federation pleased with Notley's response
Alberta's minimum wage is $11.20 per hour.
She said any future contracts with agencies outside Alberta's jurisdiction will be reviewed to ensure they comply.
Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGown was pleased with the government's quick response.
"It's clear that these workers were poorly treated by the agency that brought them over. The good news is that the Alberta government is taking what we would describe as quick and appropriate action."
The South Africans' deployment in Alberta started with much fanfare when they arrived at the Edmonton airport May 29. The firefighters sang and danced and expressed their excitement at being able to help.
With files from Bill Graveland in Calgary
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