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The Governor General of Canada, His Excellency the Right Honourable David Johnston, speaks during Hilary Weston’s reception in honour of the Governor General‘s Performing Arts Awards, held at the Weston's home.Della Rollins/The Globe and Mail

Foreign service officers at four of Canada's missions in Africa are refusing to show up for work this week as Governor-General David Johnston begins a 10-day visit to the continent.

Political staff and trade officers at Canada's missions in Kenya, Ghana, South Africa and Zimbabwe are staying home or volunteering elsewhere and refusing to respond to work-related e-mails and phone calls. They were joined by the Africa bureau staff at the Department of Foreign Affairs headquarters in Ottawa and immigration officers in Mexico City.

The move is the first withdrawal of services by members of the Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers since the union declared it was in a legal strike position last month. PAFSO says its members are paid substantially less than other public servants who do similar jobs but remain in Canada, and has been gradually escalating job actions in recent weeks to force the federal government back to the bargaining table.

Foreign service officers in Ottawa and abroad had earlier been instructed not to respond to job-related e-mails or phone calls after hours and to refuse to work any overtime. Those employed at headquarters in Ottawa, Washington, Mexico City and London have also held brief information pickets in recent weeks.

The strike, which began Monday morning, is meant to coincide with Mr. Johnston's 10-day visit to Ghana, Botswana and South Africa and Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird's visit to Ghana, Kenya and Tanzania this week. (Canada does not have a mission in Botswana, but foreign service officers have halted work in nearby Harare, Zimbabwe, which covers Botswana.) Mr. Baird and Mr. Johnston both arrived in Ghana on Monday.

The union said immigration officers at the African missions would remain on the job, in part because it did not want to disrupt their work on refugee applications. Those working in the Africa bureau in Ottawa were asked not to show up for work on Monday "so pressures in the field cannot be offset by those who remain at headquarters working on those files," said Timothy Edwards, PAFSO's president. In total, about two dozen staff abroad and 18 staff in Ottawa were on strike as of Monday morning, he said.

Mr. Edwards said the union is taking an incremental approach to job action and considers the withdrawal of some services on Monday a "relatively mild" escalation in tactics.

"We will continue escalating service withdrawals. It may be through a continuation of the ones that we've already put in place, it may be that we stop those and start them somewhere else, but for the time being the ones that we have initiated are indefinite," he said.

Matthew Conway, a spokesman for Treasury Board president Tony Clement, said Monday that the government bargains in good faith and is respecting the confidentiality of the collective-bargaining process.

"It is unfortunate that the union prefers to take their labour demands out on Canadians. The government will do its utmost to continue to ensure service delivery in a timely fashion with the least amount of disruption to Canadians," he wrote in an e-mail.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Foreign Affairs said the department recognizes the union's right to strike and will do what it can to limit any service disruptions.

The union says its 1,350 members are paid between $3,000 and $14,000 less than government employees who do similar work but remain in Canada, and is asking for changes to the Treasury Board's pay scales for diplomats to bring them up to the same level.

Mr. Edwards said the union made several concessions in bargaining with the government, including accepting a cap on annual pay increases and the loss of severance pay for resignations and retirements. The union has been without a contract since June, 2011.