Minister hits back after claims firefighters in Canada were ‘ruthlessly exploited’

Edna Molewa says Numsa's remarks are a fundamental misreading of the context & circumstances of a pay dispute.

A group of South African firefighters have a break as they work to mop-up hot spots in an area close to Anzac, just outside of Fort McMurray, Alberta on June 2, 2016. Almost 300 South African firefighters started working to put out hot spots today near Fort McMurray. The pace of Fort McMurray residents' return to the wildfire-ravaged Canadian oil city accelerated, but continued to fall short of expectations. Authorities were prepared to welcome back as many as 40,000, more than double the previous day's count, but early indications suggested that the target would not be met. Picture: AFP.

CAPE TOWN - Environmental Affairs Minister Edna Molewa has hit back at the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) for saying South African firefighters, who had been deployed to Canada, were "ruthlessly exploited" and "ripped off".

Molewa says Numsa's claims that government was trying to get away with cheap labour are patently false and she has challenged the union to come up with evidence.

The 301 firefighters returned home this week.

They had gone on strike over a pay dispute just days after touching down in Alberta to help Canadians battle wildfires.

The firefighters were deployed to Canada by Working on Fire (WoF), which is part of government's Expanded Public Works Programme.

Molewa says these programmes are meant to enhance job opportunities and participants are paid according to prescribed guidelines.

In a statement, Molewa's office says the department "notes that participants on international deployment such as the WoF firefighters receive higher earnings in the form of an out-of-country allowance of CAD $50 per day, in addition to their local remuneration while deployed abroad."

Molewa says Numsa's remarks are a fundamental misreading of the context and circumstances that led to the pay dispute in Canada.

She has promised a full internal investigation into the impasse.

Going forward, future deployments will be governed by a country-to-country memorandum of understanding.