Global News has learned some of the 300 South African firefighters working on the Fort McMurray wildfire are leaving early.
A spokesperson with the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo said some firefighters from South Africa are being sent home but she could not say why or how many, deferring further questions to Alberta Forestry.
Renato Gandia, press secretary for Alberta Forestry, said the province is aware of a wage dispute between the firefighters and the South African government and there was a work stoppage on Wednesday. There were no details about the circumstances surrounding the work stoppage.
Gandia said South African officials were in northern Alberta on Wednesday to speak with the firefighters.
“We have a contract with the South African government based on a rate per day per firefighter,” the ministry said in a statement.
“We’re paying that 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 firefighters arrived in Edmonton on May 29. At the time, a spokesperson for Alberta Wildfire said the crew would do a 14-day rotation and then their involvement in fighting the blaze would be reassessed.
There was no immediate response from Working on Fire, which is the agency that sent the firefighters. According to its website, it provides work opportunities for men and women from marginalized communities.
There was also no immediate response from the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre, which coordinated the international response.
Ditiro Moseki has been a firefighter for four years in South Africa. This is his first deployment to Canada. He said he and his colleagues have been working 12 hours a day fighting the fire.
He said firefighters were told they would make $15 a day while in Canada and receive $35 per day upon their return to South Africa, for a total of $50 a day. He said while working a normal eight-hour shift at home, they would make 92 South African Rand a day – which is just under $8 CAD.
One Canadian firefighter, who asked to remain anonymous fearing repercussions at work, told Global News that he makes $27 an hour fighting the blaze near Fort McMurray.
Moseki is concerned that the firefighters won’t be receiving the rest of their pay when they get home.
“There is no guarantee,” Moseki said. “The intention here of us coming to Canada is not for money. Money will come and our intention is to help you guys here.”
There is also confusion over a media report from South Africa saying the firefighters were going to be paid $21 an hour. Moseki said firefighters expressed their concerns to their bosses.
“We feel very bad and we don’t know what to do with the situation. What I’m hoping to happen is for them to pay us, that’s what I’m hoping for,” he said.
-with files from Karen Bartko and Phil Heidenreich