In The Media

Diplomats ratchet up job action

by Sneh Guggal (feat. Daryl Copeland),

April 10, 2013

New work-to-rule measures mean no overtime, no BlackBerry phones outside of work hours, and ‘not doing a single duty that’s not listed in your job description:’ PAFSO.

Foreign service officers at home and abroad ratcheted up job action measures this week, with work-to-rule added to the electronic picketing they introduced last week.

That means a strict seven-and-a-half-hour workday with no overtime, no BlackBerry phones outside of work hours, no filling in for bosses when they are away, and “not doing a single duty that’s not listed in your job description,” said Tim Edwards, president of the Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers, which represents just over 1,500 current and retired workers.

PAFSO and the Treasury Board have hit an impasse on contract negotiations that have been ongoing since August 2011. The union, which says it is looking for “equal pay for equal work,” moved into a legal strike position on April 2.

Former PAFSO executive committee member Daryl Copeland said the “inherently conservative” nature of PAFSO means they wouldn’t resort to anything like job action “unless they really felt they were backed into a corner with no way out.”

A Treasury Board spokesperson previously said the government would continue to bargain with PAFSO in “good faith to reach a reasonable settlement that is fair to workers and taxpayers.”

Mr. Edwards said he thinks the latest job action would have “a severe operational impact in meeting the agenda and the priorities of our departments,” given the “countless hours of paid and unpaid overtime” that workers put in.

But services that concern the safety and security of Canadians would continue to be delivered, he noted.

About 15 per cent of PAFSO’s work force is considered “essential” and is exempt from taking such measures.

The types of services that could be affected fall into the trade, immigration, and political areas.

Those affected include: trade commissioners who are responsible for opening markets to Canadian goods and services abroad, and immigration officials who process student or visitor visas and permanent resident applications.

“On the political side, we’re talking about all our political officers who lobby foreign governments to make decisions which favour Canadian interests...those who do public advocacy...implementing our global human rights, religious freedoms, and dignity agenda,” Mr. Edwards said.

He said the union has not heard from Treasury Board as of the morning of April 9.

“We’re ready to come back to the table the moment we receive a call from Treasury Board indicating that they’re willing to have a serious discussion about our long-festering wage gaps,” he said.

Meanwhile, Matthew Conway, spokesperson for Treasury Board President Tony Clement, wrote in an email to Embassy on April 9 that the government bargains in good faith. 

 Mr. Conway said it was “unfortunate that the union would seek to deny services to 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.”

Mr. Edwards said PAFSO hopes to resolve the issue as quickly as possible so that it doesn’t escalate to a strike.


PAFSO, DFAIT at odds

PAFSO and the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade have also butted heads.

PAFSO’s executive director, Ron Cochrane, said the department has blocked all emails from their server to departmental addresses.  

This includes any correspondence that is not related to job action, such as staffing issues or life insurance claims, Mr. Edwards said.

PAFSO members used what they call an electronic info picket last week, which included automatic reply emails noting that PAFSO was in a “legal strike position.”

“As a result, there may be a delay in responding to your inquiry,” the email read. “We regret any inconvenience.”

DFAIT told its employees on April 4 that they couldn’t use “the employer’s equipment or facilities, where such use is seen to have an effect adverse to the interests of the department,” wrote DFAIT spokesperson Emma Welford in an email to Embassy. 

The departmental note sent to staff said that failure to stop could result in disciplinary action including being fired, according to an April 4 report in The Globe and Mail. 

Mr. Cochrane said this seemed like an “overreaction,” and that DFAIT was just making things worse. 

PAFSO has filed a grievance to the Public Sector Labour Relations Board, but they’ve been told it could take a few weeks before a hearing. 

Meanwhile, Ms. Welford said departmental officials and PAFSO executive members “have committed to meet to discuss this ongoing issue.”


‘Equal pay for equal work’

Foreign service salaries start at $58,000. Workers are broken down into four levels and there are several pay steps within each level.

PAFSO wants an extra pay increment added to three of the levels, and three pay increments added to one of the categories, called FS-02, which includes working-level diplomats. That now has a top salary of $82,000. Each pay increment would average to around $4,000, Mr. Edwards said.

PAFSO’s members have been subjected to wage gaps for eight years, he argued, when compared to other professional government workers who perform similar work. 

But the union wasn’t able to address “wage gaps” during the last round of bargaining in 2009, Mr. Edwards said, because the government imposed wages through legislation on all federal public servants during the recession.

During this round, he said, the union agreed to what the government put on the table, which is a wage increase of 1.5 per cent per year, and the loss of severance pay for “voluntary separations,” or things like retirements or resignations.

“So far Treasury Board hasn’t been willing to engage with us at the table on our demands, they have put a take-it or leave-it offer, ” Mr. Edwards said on April 3.

Mr. Clement’s spokesperson Andrea Mandel-Campbell told Embassy on April 3 that the foreign service is a “highly sought after and well-paid posting.”

She added that the government had to “respect the confidentiality of the collective bargaining process” and couldn’t disclose other information.


Looking to the past

Mr. Cochrane said PAFSO members did picket back in 2002 when there was a breakdown in talks between the union and the government. But the picketing only occurred from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m., after which time employees went in for a normal day’s work. 

Mr. Copeland, who was a member of the PAFSO executive intermittently from 1985 to 2001, stressed the importance of diplomacy. He is now a senior fellow with the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute. 

“It’s very much in Canada’s interest for the foreign service to be effective,” Mr. Copeland said. “It can’t be effective if the people that work in it are feeling that they are being taking advantage of.”

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