04/05/2013 01:59 EDT | Updated 04/05/2013 02:23 EDT

Canada Foreign Service Job Action: Diplomats Threatened Over 'Out Of Office' Email Alerts


OTTAWA — The federal government has escalated a battle against its diplomats by threatening to fire any foreign service officer who engages in a so-called “e-picket,” The Huffington Post has learned.

A group of 1,350 rank-and-file foreign service officers began job actions on April 2 over what they say is a pay equity issue.

Members of the Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers (PAFSO) voted overwhelmingly, 82 per cent, in mid-March to engage in a legal strike position. The union had been negotiating an expired collective agreement since August 2011, but PAFSO says the federal government walked away from the table this January.

This week, emails sent to diplomats abroad and those working at headquarters in Ottawa were returned with a message saying the employee is in a legal strike position following a breakdown in collective bargaining with the Government of Canada. “As a result there may be a delay in responding to your inquiry. We regret any inconvenience,” the “e-picket” message states.

On Thursday, Nadir Patel, an assistant deputy minister at Foreign Affairs in charge of human resources, sent a message to all employees saying they could not use their “out of office” email feature to advance their collective bargaining objectives — and if they did, they could be fired.

“The use of the department’s electronic mail system, including the "Out of Office" feature or modifications or additions to signature blocks to promote an agenda that is adverse to the interests of the department must cease immediately,” Patel wrote. “Should such inappropriate use of electronic mail continue, it may result in administrative or disciplinary measures up to and including termination of employment.”

Tim Edwards, PAFSO’s president, told HuffPost that the union has appealed to the Public Service Labour Relations Board.

“We consider it an unfair labour practice and we’ve instructed our members to maintain the e-picket until the Board has rendered a decision,” Edwards told HuffPost Friday.

The union says the department is also blocking all of PAFSO’s emails to its members.

Treasury Board President Tony Clement’s press secretary, Matthew Conway, told HuffPost on Thursday that claim was “patently untrue.”

But several hours later, Tristan Landry, a spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs, said the government had a policy whereby “no bargaining agent, or its members, may make use of the employer's equipment or facilities, where such use is seen to have an effect adverse to the interests of the department.”

Edwards said foreign service officers are engaged in job actions over a growing wage gap, which in some cases has persisted since 2005 between diplomats and their professional equivalents in the public service.

“The time has come for us to draw the line,” Edwards said.

“There is one issue, it is equal pay for equal work. We are currently being paid up to $10,500 less than other Government of Canada professionals doing the exact same work in often the office right next door, in the same work unit.”

Edwards said the federal government had made no new offers to the foreign service officers since talks began 20 months ago. He said the union had agreed to the government’s demands — a small salary increase of 1.5 per cent and a 0.75 per cent top up to compensate for the elimination of severance payments — but was holding out over pay equity.

Foreign service officers in non-executive positions, such as ambassadors and high commissioners, earn between $58,055 and $112,512. Their counterparts in the trade or policy divisions can earn anywhere between $3,000 and $13,520 more for doing similar work, according to Treasury Board wage scales.

However, several foreign service officers, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told HuffPost that a lack of opportunities and promotions has soured relations with their employer. They say such limitations have contributed to a lack of morale among the staff at 125 Sussex Drive, the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade’s main headquarters in Ottawa. The case is especially true for younger diplomats with seven to ten years of experience who haven’t been able to compete for a promotion since 2006 — no matter how hard they work.

It hasn’t helped that the Conservatives’ cost-cutting measures have also eliminated 50 overseas postings, forcing more diplomats back to Ottawa — a place few wish to come home to.

The federal government appears to have little sympathy for its overseas attachés.

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

Diplomats posted abroad are entitled to several perks, among them: fancier homes than many enjoy in Ottawa, private school education for their children and salary top-ups for those serving in dangerous areas.

But Edwards points out that federal employees in all government departments, regardless of their pay scales, enjoy the same benefits when abroad. Other diplomats note that the hours can be taxing, life abroad can be very difficult, especially in danger zones, and it often leads to stress and breakups of families.

Foreign service officers who go abroad make a big family sacrifice, said one diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity. “It’s because of our love for Canada and Canadian values that that we go abroad to represent them,” the diplomat said.

It’s true that foreign service officers are highly sought-after positions, Edwards acknowledged. But Canada’s diplomats are not easily replaced with new recruits because of their years of experience and skill sets for which the federal government has invested heavily, he said.

Edwards wouldn’t specify when further job actions are coming but said they would “escalate” in the coming weeks.

The union has already encouraged its members to take communal, 15-minute coffee breaks at the same time on Wednesdays. Foreign service officers are also prepared to work their 7.5 hours a day and not a minute more, stick exactly to the letter of their job description and refuse to help out colleagues in need to make their point.

They’ll likely start information pickets before business hours and, if it comes to it, they will withdraw their services completely and walk the picket line, Edwards said.

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