Canada’s foreign service officers are planning to trade their suits for sweats and other “creative” work attire this week in a bid to draw attention to their ongoing labour dispute with the federal government.
The Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers, which represents 1,350 diplomats working both in Canada and abroad, has been in a legal strike position since early April. The union says its biggest concern is that members are paid substantially less than other public servants who do the same kind of work but do not typically spend time outside of Canada.
Foreign service officers began work-to-rule tactics last week that include not responding to phone calls or e-mails outside of regular office hours and declining to work any overtime. The union’s members include visa officers, trade negotiators and political aides, among others.
On Sunday, the union sent a note to its members asking them to think of creative ways to dress for work.
“We’re asking our members, in a show of solidarity and creativity, to change the way they dress while at the office,” the note states. “Too often the stereotype of a diplomat is a dandy in a pinstriped suit, tails, and top hat. Maybe you’d like to meet that standard for a change. Or perhaps sweat pants and a T-shirt are how you do your best work. Be creative, have fun, and use your own judgement as to what you think is right for your place of work.”
The note adds that members should continue to exercise judgement in their choices and avoid any clothing that would be considered culturally offensive or create a hostile work environment for others.
Timothy Edwards, the union’s president, said its main focus continues to be its work-to-rule tactics, which he said are already having a noticeable impact on government operations abroad. The planned change in attire “is something additional to highlight the discrepancy between the professionalism that’s expected of us and the fact that our pay doesn’t reflect that,” he said.
Mr. Edwards said he wore his Saskatchewan Roughriders jersey to his Ottawa office on Monday, but added that it may take some time for foreign service officers in other locations to switch their attire. “This is just the first day of it, so I would expect the creativity to escalate in the days ahead,” he said.
At the same time, union members removed an “electronic picket” they had set up two weeks ago that sent automatic replies to all e-mails explaining the labour dispute and apologizing for any delay. An official from the Department of Foreign Affairs had earlier threatened to discipline anyone who continued to use the out-of-office messages.
Mr. Edwards said the union has made a formal complaint to the Public Service Labour Relations Board over the department’s threat but removed the messages this week as a “confidence-building measure.” The department also agreed to restore the union’s access to its members’ work e-mail accounts, which it had previously cut off, he said.
A spokesman for the Treasury Board said he could not comment in detail about the union’s actions. “Our government bargains in good faith; we will continue to respect the confidentiality and legal obligations of collective bargaining,” Matthew Conway wrote in an e-mailed response to questions.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Foreign Affairs said the union’s actions have not yet had an impact on government operations. “The Department is monitoring the situation very closely and will take any necessary action to ensure that we continue to provide services to Canadians at home and abroad,” Emma Welford wrote in an e-mail.
The union says its members are paid between $3,000 and $14,000 less than other public servants who do similar work. Mr. Edwards said the union made several concessions in bargaining with the government, by accepting a cap on annual pay increases and the loss of severance pay for resignations and retirements. “It’s fair to say, as long as Treasury Board isn’t coming back to the table to engage in a serious discussion, that our job action measures will continue to escalate in severity in the weeks ahead,” he said.