08/20/2013 12:39 EDT | Updated 10/20/2013 05:12 EDT

Striking diplomats rally, tweet as labour dispute drags on

Canada's striking foreign service officers are holding a rally in downtown Ottawa today and are taking to Twitter around the world to raise awareness about their jobs and their labour dispute with the government.

The officers' union, the Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers, organized the demonstration outside the citizenship and immigration department. It's taking place a day ahead of a hearing at the public service labour relations board that was triggered by a bad-faith bargaining complaint from the union.

In addition to Tuesday's rally, foreign service officers posted abroad are participating in a 24-hour Twitter campaign to "illustrate the importance of the foreign service in safeguarding Canada's national security, building its economy, shaping its future diversity and workforce, and protecting and promoting the values that Canadians hold dear."

Contract negotiations between PAFSO and Treasury Board president Tony Clement's department have been stalled for weeks as both sides refuse to give in to each other's demands. The union argues that foreign service officers who work as lawyers or policy analysts, for example, get paid less than non-foreign service officers who do the same work for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

The government argues that PAFSO members are well-paid and receive many added benefits that other government employees don't get.

Film festival worried

The ongoing strike has slowed down the processing of visas abroad and while Citizenship and Immigration has taken measures to keep up with the demand, the tourism and education sectors have raised concerns about the impact of the strike. Canada requires visas for tourists and foreign students from a number of countries including Mexico, China and India.

Foreign service officers who process visas have withdrawn their services at Canada's 15 busiest centres abroad and will not go back to work until or unless the government agrees to arbitration.

Tim Edwards, president of PAFSO, said Tuesday that in the fall more services will be withdrawn by those who work as trade or political officers.

Organizers of the Montreal World Film Festival say they know of people abroad who are having trouble getting visas because of the strike. "The MWFF's administration feels that it is damaging both to the reputation of the Canadian cinema in general and to the festival in particular, should the visitors be denied entry to one of Canada’s premier cultural events," a news release said.

The NDP urged the government to get back to the bargaining table "or risk losing billions in economic benefits that international students bring." It said in a press release that the Conservatives are responsible for the conflict and should resolve it quickly.

Dozens of foreign service officers picketed over the lunch hour in Ottawa.

"Today's picket and Twitter campaign will show that our members are unified and determined in the pursuit of pay equity. We are fiercely proud of the work we do on behalf of all Canadians and will not be bullied into submission by our employer," PAFSO president Tim Edwards said in a news release.

PAFSO proposed earlier in the summer that the two sides settle the contract dispute with binding arbitration. The government wanted to impose conditions on the arbitration and when the union didn't accept them the idea of arbitration also ground to a halt.

The union says the conditions were unreasonable and would have predetermined the outcome of the arbitration and that they were a "clear violation" of the government's duty to bargain in good faith, as set out in the Public Service Labour Relations Act. PAFSO filed its complaint with the labour board on July 31.

Union seeking 'hefty' raise

"PAFSO has made every reasonable effort to resolve this dispute. The government has not," said Edwards. "We can only conclude that Treasury Board is discriminating against Canada’s foreign service. We are seeking judicial intervention to compel the government to negotiate in good faith."

A spokeswoman for Clement said Tuesday that PAFSO is asking for a "hefty wage hike that is neither fair nor reasonable for taxpayers."

"Our government will consider all options in finding a resolution to this strike. We remain open to a resolution that respects the interests of both taxpayers and foreign service union members," Andrea Mandel-Campbell said in an emailed response.

"In the past month we have reached tentative agreements with three other unions. In all cases the bargaining agents were willing to reach fair and reasonable settlements."