Talks between Canada's federal government and its striking foreign service are once again at a standstill, as both sides failed to agree on arbitration.
Treasury Board President Tony Clement is now going public with a plea to would-be tourists, saying Canada is open for business as it does its best to cope with a visa backlog created by the rotating strikes.
Mr. Clement also signalled the government is digging in its heels, saying the Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers (PAFSO) is asking for more than other government bargaining units have recently.
Other recent deals "were reached because the bargaining agents' approaches were fair and reasonable," Mr. Clement said in a written statement Friday. "In contrast, PAFSO continues to insist on making unreasonable comparisons between substantively different jobs in the public service."
The union has been carrying out rotating strikes since April. Union President Tim Edwards and Mr. Clement traded barbs in a recent public Twitter exchange, and last week the union offered binding arbitration. It set a deadline of noon Tuesday. Two minutes before the deadline, Mr. Clement agreed to arbitration "with conditions" – caveats that the government wouldn't publicly specify. The union responded the next day with a private letter, but signalled it wouldn't accept the government's conditions as they stood. "While we would have preferred to initiate the arbitration process without preconditions, PAFSO is committed to finding a reasonable and responsible way forward which will allow for a full and fair hearing of arguments from both sides," the union said at the time.
On Friday, Mr. Clement's statement appeared to consider the union's response a rejection of arbitration. "We are disappointed that PAFSO was so quick to reject our willingness to enter into a binding arbitration process that the union itself requested," Mr. Clement's statement said. It, once again, didn't specify the conditions the government attached to the union offer.
However, the union issued a statement Friday afternoon that said they had not rejected binding arbitration.
"If Mister Clement truly believes his offer is 'fair and reasonable', he would not have shied away from arbitration without preconditions," the statement reads. "Rather, he would have welcomed the opportunity to submit his offer to independent scrutiny."
The two sides are at odds over the salary ranges paid to the public service. The union says it pales to comparable professions elsewhere in government, while Mr. Clement has rejected the comparisons and noted that foreign service jobs are already in high demand. The government's offer is "fair and reasonable," he said. The union is asking for raises of between $3,000 and $14,000 for each of its roughly 1,350 members.
The union's strike has been targeting Canadian offices in major countries abroad, including China, India and Mexico. Talks over major trade deals with the European Union and Japan have also been targeted.
Federal figures show visa processing times have slowed since the strike, though Mr. Clement said Friday the government would continue to try to cope with visa demands throughout the strike – which the union has said will continue until a resolution is reached.
Canada's tourism sector has said the strike could cost $280-million in lost travel, while universities have warned that international students could be caught in the lurch.
"We continue to take steps to ensure the timely processing of visas. The Canadian public is deeply concerned by PAFSO's willingness to disrupt international business, including tourism, during our busy spring and summer seasons," Mr. Clement said. "However, we want to reassure Canadians and our international friends that, despite PAFSO's actions, Canada remains open for business, and that we continue to welcome visitors and international students to experience Canada."
The union said they will withdraw all services from Canada's 15 largest visa processing centres abroad effective Monday, in attempts to persuade the government to move forward with binding arbitration. These centres are located in Abu Dhabi, Ankara, Beijing, Cairo, Delhi/Chandigarh, Hong Kong, London, Manila, Mexico City, Moscow, Paris, Riyadh, Sao Paulo, and Shanghai.
The union said the Canadian government is responsible for the impacts of closing the centres.
"We take no pleasure whatsoever in these strike actions and their real, severe, and mounting effects on the Canadian economy," the union said. "PAFSO encourages all individuals, businesses, and industry associations with a stake in the outcome of our dispute to intervene with the Government and urge them to bargain freely and flexibly with their own employees."