Department of Environmental Affairs rejects NUMSA claims of ‘exploitation’ of firefighters

16 June 2016


The Minister of Environmental Affairs, Mrs Edna Molewa notes with regret a number of statements attributed to the National Union of Metalworkers (NUMSA) regarding a group of South African firefighters who recently returned home from assisting with wildfire suppression in the Canadian province of Alberta.

The remarks, carried widely in media on 16 June 2016 are attributed to NUMSA spokesperson Patrick Craven, alleging that the 301 firefighters deployed to Canada as part of a resource sharing agreement with that country’s authorities, were ‘ruthlessly exploited.’

The firefighters are participants in an internationally-renowned natural resource management programme, Working on Fire, which is part of the Government's Expanded Public Works' Programmes and has been in existence since 2003.

The Department of Environmental Affairs runs twelve Environmental Public Works Employment Programmes as part of the over-arching EPWP. One of the twelve is known as "Working on Fire" and is aimed at inter alia, creating work opportunities and absorb some of the many young South Africans who for various reason have not acquired the necessary education and or skills, thus enabling them to gain skills and increase their capacity to advance and earn an income.

These programmes enhance participants’ chances of finding jobs or starting their own businesses, as it has already happened with some 197 of the 375, who now are employed as managers of the same programme, and come from the ranks of fire fighters. A large number of former fire fighters have also graduated from the programme to jobs in the public and private sector in fields such a conservation, game rangers, the South African Police Service, the South African Defence Force, local government, etc.  Some of the former fire fighters have also graduated to start their own business in agriculture, retail, etc. including one such former fire fighter who was able to do so after a deployment mission in Canada in 2015.

NUMSA further alleges that the firefighters ‘and others on such government schemes are being ‘ripped off’ and ‘super-exploited.’

“Such remarks evidence a fundamental misreading of the context and circumstances that led to the dispute around the remuneration of our firefighters whilst they were deployed to Canada,” says Minister of Environmental Affairs Edna Molewa.

Minister Molewa added: “Our firefighters have now returned home. Things have normalized as they are back to their South African working conditions. The Working for Fire (Pty) Ltd and the departmental National Resource Management Committee, chaired by DEA, will follow up with a full internal investigation to get to the bottom of the causes of the impasse that arose when they were in Canada. This will be done with the view to ensure that nothing of this sort recurs in future.

Furthermore, in response to a request from President Zuma, we are now putting systems in place to ensure future deployments of this nature are governed by country-to-country Memoranda of Understanding that will inform the implementation plan to be signed by both implementing agents.

Whilst the Department of Environmental Affairs affirms the right and duty of the trade union federation to raise concerns around the perceived ill treatment of workers in line with its mandate, the statements attributed to NUMSA are economic with the truth, unhelpful and potentially inflammatory.

“Such remarks attributed to NUMSA, namely that government is “trying to get away with cheap labour”, are patently false and we challenge NUMSA to furnish evidence it may have in this regard,” says Minister Molewa.

NUMSA has further alleged that the programme’s implementing agent, Working on Fire is a ‘cheap labour scheme to exploit workers who ought to be properly employed in the public service and paid a living wage.’

The Department reiterates that participants on all EPWP programmes are remunerated in line with guidelines for Employment and Conditions of Work for EPWP Programmes.

The Department of Environmental Affairs further 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.

Minister Molewa said in a statement published earlier this week that the Department was engaging with Working on Fire’s Implementing Agent as well as with the Canadian Government to ensure that the remuneration for the firefighters was fair and equitable in comparison to that of workforce performing same job in Canada.

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