Foreign service officers ramp up tactics in bid for new contract

Ottawa — The Globe and Mail

Treasury Board President Tony Clement. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Canada’s foreign service officers have stopped working overtime and responding to job-related e-mails from home, the latest escalation in tactics aimed at bringing the federal government back to the bargaining table to negotiate a new contract.

The Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers, which includes immigration officers, visa officers and political staff, has been in a legal strike position since last week. The union says its biggest concern is that members are paid substantially less than other public servants who do similar work but don’t have to uproot their families to move abroad.

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Timothy Edwards, the union’s president, said members were instructed late Sunday to begin a work-to-rule campaign on Monday morning, which means not responding to work-related e-mails after hours and working a strict 7 1/2 hours each day. They have also been asked to exercise their right to communicate internally in the language of their choice and to decline to fill in for their bosses. The union has been without a contract since June, 2011.

“Given the huge amounts of overtime, often unpaid, which our members put in day in and day out abroad, we believe that this will have a significant operational impact,” Mr. Edwards said.

Last week, foreign service officers launched their first action, an “electronic picket” in the form of an out-of-office message explaining that they are in a legal strike position and apologizing for any delay in responding. An official from the Department of Foreign Affairs responded two days later with a note threatening to fire anyone who continued to use the out-of-office message.

“Should such inappropriate use of electronic mail continue, it may result in administrative or disciplinary measures up to and including termination of employment,” the note warned.

The department indicated last week that the “electronic picket” breached Treasury Board policies for using electronic networks. The union says it has filed a complaint with the Public Service Labour Relations Board and instructed members to keep the messages going.

A spokeswoman for the department said no disciplinary actions had been taken as of Monday afternoon, adding that department officials and union executives had committed to a meeting to discuss the issue. Emma Welford said services have not yet been affected and that the government would work to minimize any disruption. “The Department [of Foreign Affairs] is preparing contingency plans to address any job actions, including work stoppages,” she wrote in an e-mail.

In addition to the work-to-rule decision, foreign service officers have been asked to alter their titles and job descriptions on the networking site LinkedIn. Many chose to put the words “Unequally paid” in front of their job titles on Monday.

The union says members are paid between $3,000 and $14,000 less than public servants who do the same work but remain in Canada. 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.

Members of the union voted 82-per-cent in favour of a strike mandate in mid-March, Mr. Edwards said. Job actions are expected to gradually escalate, and could eventually result in a withdrawal of services.

A spokesman for Treasury Board President Tony Clement said he could not comment on the details of the collective bargaining process for legal reasons, but added that it is unfortunate that the union “would seek to deny services to Canadians.”

“The foreign service is a highly sought-after and well-paid posting,” Matthew Conway wrote in an e-mailed response to questions. “The government will continue to negotiate in good faith to reach a reasonable settlement with PAFSO that is fair to workers and taxpayers.”

Some foreign service officers say that morale has been affected by the fact that there have been very few opportunities for promotions over the past seven years. They also say there have been no competitions for promotions from the level 2 payscale – which starts at $65,304 a year – to the level 3, which starts at $76,010.

“A lot of people in the department have been stuck in this level [level 2] for a really long time,” said one foreign service officer who works outside of Canada, speaking on condition that he not be identified. “And that, I think, has really frustrated people. So I’m making less than my colleague over there – and I can’t get promoted.”

There are 1,350 foreign service officers in the union, nearly half of whom are posted abroad at any given time.

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