Cape Times - Working on Fire’s Trevor Abrahams has come out in defence against claims of exploiting South African workers, telling MPs that the 300 firefighters the company sent to Canada in June were essentially there as volunteers.

The 300 were sent back to South Africa and threatened with disciplinary action after they went on strike and charged that the company, which is contracted to the Department of Environmental Affairs, short-changed them on pay. They demanded to be paid the Canadian minimum wage of R3 000 a day.

Abrahams told the portfolio committee on Environmental Affairs that disaster relief for which the South Africans were deployed should not be seen as an employment opportunity.

“In the case of Fort McMurray you had people from Mexico, the US, Australia… all of them were paid in terms of their domestic wages.

“In the last deployment to Canada the Working on Fire allowance was about CAN$50 (R533), over and above their (South African) salaries,” said Abrahams.

He said the Canadian visa regulations had been explicit in stating that the South African firefighters could not be integrated into the Canadian labour market.

“We’ve had three major deployments recently: in 2015, 50 of our firefighters with three incident team managers went (away) for 30 days, in November 2015 another 50 plus three of our pilots and three managers went for 21 days and then in May for 20 days we deployed 294 firefighters and seven incident management teams.”

He said in Canada, all the board and lodging had been paid for by Working on Fire.

“If you compare their allowance in terms of purchasing power they earned more than their Canadian counterparts,” Abrahams added.

Portfolio committee chairman Phil Mapulane (ANC) said he was expecting a more detailed report from Working on Fire on the reasons for the strike in Canada.

“Instead you gave us three pages on the financials.

“I was expecting that you were going to tell us more about the labour issues,” said Mapulane.

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Cape Times