Canada is giving South Africa’s visiting firefighters a surprise pay raise

Canada called in, and paid, firefighting reinforcements.
Canada called in, and paid, firefighting reinforcements.
Image: Reuters/Mark Blinch
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Nearly 300 South African firefighters arrived in Alberta, Canada this week to help quell wildfires that have destroyed entire neighborhoods and forced Fort McMurray’s population of nearly 90,000 to flee.

And now they’ve just got a surprise pay raise.

The South Africans are part of the Working on Fire program, a government funded initiative that recruits young people from impoverished neighborhoods and trains them as firefighters. The program has already trained more than 5,000 men and women. The team, made up of 301 firefighters and managers, were just happy to visit Canada.

A smaller team of firefighters worked in Alberta and British Columbia last year and earned $1500 each. The amount seemed more than fair considering that is more than 10 times what they would earn at home, according to Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper.

But they’re in Canada, where wildfire crews make $21 to $26 an hour on 12-hour shifts, with overtime. The Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre, concerned with the rate the South Africans received in 2015, decided to bump their salaries up to par with other crews.

“It opened our eyes,” Llewellyn Pillay, managing director of Working on Fire, told the Globe and Mail. “It’s a much more ethical way of doing it. It’s the right way to operate, morally. We had never thought about it—we were just happy to have the chance to go to Canada. Now we realize we can’t assume that South Africa’s rates are at parity.”

If the South Africans were excited to be in Canada before, they should be ecstatic by the news of a raise. On arriving at the Edmonton International Airport early on Monday morning, the South Africans returned a warm Canadian welcome with an impromptu song-and-dance special.

The wildfire in Canada’s oil and gas region has burned for nearly a month. Canadian officials called in reinforcements of about 1,000 additional firefighters, including from the United States, to join the 1,200 already on the ground.