South Africa's singing-dancing firefighters leave Canada over pay

South African firefighters dance for Canadian community
South African firefighters dance for Canadian community

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Story highlights

  • 300 South African firefighters leaving after less than two weeks
  • Paid CAD$15 stipend a day and CAD$35 allowance

Johannesburg (CNN)They arrived with a colorful song and dance. And now they're leaving in a huff.

Around 300 South African firefighters who flew to Canada to battle the wildfires in Fort McMurray are leaving after less than two weeks on the job in a pay dispute.
    Working on Fire, the South African government-funded agency that organized the deployment, said Canadian authorities had agreed to pay for the firefighters' accommodation and meals, and provide a daily stipend of CAD$15 (U.S. $11.79). In addition, the firefighters would receive an out-of-country daily allowance of CAD$35 a day once they returned home, the agency said in a statement.
    Alberta Premier Rachel Notley said she would be taking steps to intervene, according to CNN news partner CBC.
    "The fact of the matter is that it's not acceptable to me and my government that we would have people working for wages in our province that do not align with our labour laws," CBC reported Notley as saying.
    "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," she said.
    The minimum wage in Alberta is CAD$11.20 for most professions, and firefighters earn an average wage of CAD$33.14.
    The firefighters had agreed to the terms, but confusion arose when the local media reported that the firefighters would receive a salary increase, Working on Fire said in a statement.
    The reports said the firefighters would receive $21 an hour, but Working on Fire said that the wage was "never agreed with anyone."
    "We are dispatching a senior management team to Alberta, Canada ... to address the firefighters' concerns and to assist with the smooth demobilization of our firefighters and their safe return back home to South Africa," the statement said.
    The firefighters arrived in Alberta with a bang, singing and dancing at the airport in sunny yellow outfits after a long-haul flight.
    They were joining a team to fight the wildfires that broke out near Fort McMurray on May 1 and have blazed through parts of Alberta and Saskatchewan ever since. Fort McMurray, a town of more than 80,000 people, was evacuated entirely, but some residents have had the go-ahead to return home.
    About 10% of the city has been destroyed, including at least 2,400 structures, the premier's office has said.
    Mike Long, communication director for Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, said the sudden departure of the South Africans would not disrupt efforts to battle the wildfire.
    "We have nearly 2,000 firefighters on the line currently and the fire is 70% contained at the moment so it's at a point where we are able to manage the need appropriately," he said.
    South African citizens took to social media to chime in on the issue, some saying that their government was holding back firefighters' earnings in Canada.
    Author and journalist Mandy Wiener commented on Twitter, calling the situation a "downer."