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South African Firefighters Are Leaving Fort McMurray Because They're Pissed About Low Pay

Some 300 firefighters arrived to much fanfare in Canada to help battle a blaze that continues to rage in Alberta. But things have soured over their $15 a day stipend arranged by their local organization.

by VICE News
Jun 9 2016, 6:10pm

South African firefighters departing for Canada. (Photo by CNW Group/Air Canada)

South African firefighters who arrived in Canada singing and dancing are already leaving after a dispute over how much they were getting paid to help battle the blaze around Fort McMurray.

Working on Fire, the South African organization in charge of the deployment, said in a statement early Thursday that they have dispatched senior management to the province of Alberta to address the firefighters' "concerns" and assist with the "smooth demobilization" of some 300 members and return home.

According to the Globe and Mail, the firefighters are angry that they are only receiving $15 a day while in Canada from the South African government, in addition to their regular salaries. Upon their return home, they will receive an additional $35 a day "out of country allowance." Some protested by going on strike.

Last week, an official at Working on Fire told the Globe the firefighters would be getting a pay increase in order to ward off the perception that they are providing "slave labor" as they fight the 581,956 hectare fire alongside their Canadian counterparts, who make up to $26 an hour.

But in the statement released on Thursday, Working on Fire said media reports about "salary increases" and hourly rates has caused "confusion" among South African personnel.

"We wish to categorically state that the quoted amount of $21 per hour is incorrect and was never agreed to with anyone," the statement posted to Twitter states.

Working on Fire said the agreement was that the Canadian government would cover their room and board, in addition to the $15 a day stipend, and the $35 "out of country daily allowance."

"This was discussed by the firefighters before their departure to Canada and everyone signed this agreement," the organization said. "We want the emphasize the intended beneficial experience of this deployment for these young South Africans and we reiterate that this is a life changing experience for them.

Alberta spokesperson Renato Gandia told CTV News that the provincial government is not part of the pay dispute.

"We have a contract with the South African government based on a rate per day per firefighter," Gandia said in a statement to CTV News. "We're paying that rate. It is 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, not with the Government of Alberta."

The massive blaze is no longer threatening the city of Fort McMurray, which had to be evacuated last month, but is still raging in the surrounding areas and demanding the attention of nearly 2,800 firefighters and support staff, 146 helicopters, 16 tankers and 233 pieces of heavy equipment. Residents of Fort McMurray, the hub of Canada's oil sands industry, started returning home last week, in some cases to neighborhoods devastated by the flames.

VICE News has been following the wildfires plaguing northern Alberta. Check out more of that coverage here.

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