On a sunny day near Johannesburg last month, Canadian diplomats and South African politicians were bursting with pride as they watched 300 firefighters celebrate their departure to Alberta to help battle the Fort McMurray wildfire.
It seemed to be an upbeat "win-win" story for everyone. The firefighters, most of whom had never flown on an airplane before, were excited to be travelling outside South Africa for the first time in their lives, gaining valuable experience and income. The Canadians were grateful for the foreign assistance for a blaze that covers nearly 6,000 square kilometres.
When they landed in Edmonton after an exhausting 24-hour journey, the firefighters leaped into song and dance in front of stunned Canadians at the airport, and the images became a global sensation.
But then the truth began to trickle out.
Despite a Canadian request for pay equity for the South Africans, the firefighters were still getting only $50 a day, plus their minimal South African wages of about $200 a month. As Alberta Premier Rachel Notley noted on Thursday, this was a disturbing violation of Alberta's minimum-wage laws.
Even the $50 daily allowance was split into two parts, with most of it deferred until the firefighters return home. On Wednesday, less than a week after beginning their Alberta work, the firefighters downed hoses and walked out on strike. Their employer, a South African non-profit agency known as Working on Fire, was obliged to demobilize the entire mission.
On Friday, the agency apologized for the dispute and launched an investigation. "We are extremely disappointed that we couldn't resolve this internally before it escalated to become an international incident," the agency said.
"We are currently investigating the matter internally and wish to apologize to both the Canadian government and Canadian citizens for any inconvenience this may have caused."
In fact, there is plenty of blame to share all around. Canadian officials have been aware of the low pay of the South African firefighters since their first small-scale deployment in Alberta and British Columbia last year, and they raised concerns about the lack of wage parity, yet they failed to move decisively to require a minimum-wage payment to the South Africans this year. They have also pleaded confidentiality, refusing to provide full details of the payment agreement until Ms. Notley disclosed it on Thursday.
The firefighters themselves had signed formal contracts in which they agreed to the daily allowance of $50 before their deployment. It's unclear why they changed their minds after arriving in Alberta, although some said they were worried that the full $50 wouldn't be paid.
As for the South African agency: It has an excellent record of providing jobs for 5,000 previously unemployed young people in South Africa, and it had the understandable goal of trying to force the 300 firefighters to bring back their Alberta wages to South Africa, instead of spending the money abroad, but it should have realized that the two-step pay system might trigger a backlash from the mistrustful firefighters.
Moreover, the agency's managers have contradicted each other on the pay issue. One manager said the South Africans would be getting an increase to ensure "parity" with their Canadian colleagues. But later it emerged that this "parity" was based on the agency's estimate of South Africa's weaker currency and cheaper living costs. In dollar terms, there was no parity at all.
Much of the controversy arose because the Canadian and South African officials had misjudged the increasing sensitivity in Canada over any perception of "imported" labour. By failing to explain the pay discrepancy from the beginning, the officials allowed Canadians to believe that the South Africans were being unfairly exploited.
Despite all the furor, there is still a chance of a happy conclusion to the firefighter saga. The South Africans did provide some temporary reinforcements for the Alberta firefighting effort. They gained an experience that – as some said – they would one day tell their grandchildren about.
And they could still receive a boost in their income, since the Alberta government has pledged to ensure that the firefighters are paid the amount that Alberta law requires.
With a report from Justin Giovannetti in Edmonton