NUMSA supports the Working on Fire workers

The National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa warmly congratulates the 301 fire-fighters who protested at the way they were being ruthlessly exploited while they were courageously fighting fires in Alberta, Canada, and fully supports their demands.
The union also reaffirms its opposition to exploitative cheap labour schemes like the Extended Public Works Programmes (EPWPs).
The fire-fighters were working in a programme called Working on Fire, a government EPWP, which is supposed to supply training and employment to mainly young black people as fire-fighters.  The scheme is run by a private company called Kishigu Holdings, which claims to be “the most successful job creation and skills development programme in the history of South Africa”.
In reality however, like all EPWPs, this is a cheap-labour scheme to exploit workers, who ought to be properly employed in the public service and paid a living wage.
They were sent to fight runaway fires, in terms of a resource-sharing agreement with Canadian fire fighting agencies, under which Kishigu would be paid $170 Canadian dollars (R2090) per 12-hour working day for each of the 301 workers.
But according to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation , the fire-fighters were being paid only $50 (R600) per working day, just over $4 an hour, when the minimum wage in Alberta is $11.20 an hour.
The company justified the $50 they were paying – consisting of $15 per day while in Alberta plus $35 for each day of deployment as an overseas allowance, which they receive on their return – on the basis that the $170 was a ‘stipend’, which means it is not subject to Alberta’s minimum wage laws.
They also claim that that this $170 has also to cover the ‘operational expenses’ of the programme, even though officials in Alberta confirmed that they were providing lodging, equipment, living expenses and meals to all crews.
If these reports are true Kishigu were ripping off an estimated $112 per fire-fighter per day, adding up to over R400 000 per day – R3 034 080 per week – from all the 301! And this is over and above the subsidies they receive from our own government under the EPWP.
Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Environmental Affairs says it is “particularly concerned about disturbing media reports‚ which seem to suggest that the fire fighters were remunerated far less than what this company is alleged to be paid per fire fighter” and that “This is disturbing given that the fire fighters are from marginalised communities and were trained in fire prevention and suppression skills to enable them to earn a living.”
The committee say that the Department of Environmental Affairs will be called to account‚ “particularly given the negative reports generated by this episode which have the potential to dent the image of the country.  As the committee‚ we envisage our country playing a significant role in assisting other countries in fire prevention and suppression‚ and hence we need to do it professionally and in a dignified manner‚ befitting our excellent international image”.
For Numsa this episode confirms its view that the EPWP is nothing less than a cheap labour scheme, which is used to avoid employing permanent works and paying them the wages which have been negotiated. This is particularly pernicious when implemented by government departments and municipalities. But, even worse, it is now also clear that the EPWP is being corruptly used by companies like Kishigu to steal millions of rands from the workers and the state.
Numsa urges the fire-fighters to join the union and fight for a living wage and decent, secure working conditions for all the Working on Fire workers and the thousands of others on EPWP schemes who are being ripped off and super-exploited by both the government and the corrupt companies they use to implement such programmes.
Patrick Craven
Acting Numsa Spokesperson
061 636 6057