EDMONTON — The South African company hired to bring in a crew to help fight the Fort McMurray wildfire says its workers are more highly paid than their Canadian counterparts when wages are adjusted for cost of living.
Working on Fire Ltd. makes the comment as part of a statement about a pay dispute that led to 300 of its firefighters leaving Alberta after only a few days on the job.
"Working on Fire remains uncertain as to how the dispute started; however, we are investigating the matter further so as to ensure that a similar incident does not reoccur,'' the company said.
"By adjusting for the local cost of living, it becomes evident that the Working on Fire firefighters, deployed to assist with the Alberta wildfires, earn more than the standard Canadian firefighting wages in real terms.''
Firefighters would get $65 per day in wages
The company said it agreed to a flat rate of $172.88 a day for each firefighter it sent to Alberta. The fee included $65 daily in wages and allowances. The balance was to cover medical, insurance, training, travel, equipment and other costs.
Working on Fire noted that the normal daily salary for its firefighters in South Africa would be equivalent to $9.17 in Canada.
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley has said the province will ensure that the firefighters are paid according to Alberta law, which includes a minimum wage of $11.20 per hour.
Company will establish new financial agreement
The company said after talks with its firefighters and Canadian officials that it plans to come up with a new financial agreement within three months. In the meantime, it will deposit additional money in each firefighter's account for time spent working in Alberta.
Working on Fire is a non-profit company that is part of a public works program that recruits and trains young people from poor communities.
Last summer, Alberta and British Columbia each hired a Working on Fire crew. The South Africans were brought in due to a shortage of firefighters as Canadian crews battled a huge wildfire in Saskatchewan and other fires across Western Canada.
South African firefighters tackle hotspots near Fort McMurray, Alta. (Photo: Topher Seguin/Reuters)
Mike Long, a spokesman for Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, said the province paid the company last year under an agreement similar to the one reached for the Fort McMurray fire before the pay dispute.
"In terms of the workers this year, we have been assured that they will be compensated to the standards that we have here in Alberta,'' he said.
A non-profit company that co-ordinates the management of wildfires for Canadian governments helped broker the agreements with Working on Fire and the provinces.
Kim Connors, executive director of the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre, said it also presented Alberta's demands to the company about worker pay.
"If any of the provincial governments want stipulations like that then we will do that,'' he said. "Then it would be up to the country. Is it practical for South Africa to function their program under those rules?''
"In terms of the workers this year, we have been assured that they will be compensated to the standards that we have here in Alberta."
Connors said he considers the pay dispute to be resolved.
He hopes that provinces will be able to hire the well-trained South Africans again when there aren't enough Canadian firefighters.
"It was very important that South Africa was able to help us this year and last,'' he said.
"We absolutely want to maintain a close relationship with Working on Fire and see what the future holds.''