Striking diplomats take feud with Clement to labour board

The union representing foreign service officers is accusing the government of bargaining in bad faith and has filed a complaint with the Public Service Labour Relations Board. It wants the board to order the two sides to go to arbitration to settle the contract dispute.

Union filed 'bad-faith bargaining' complaint against government

Foreign service officers who are on strike demonstrate outside Prime Minister Stephen Harper's office in Ottawa on Tuesday. (Meagan Fitzpatrick/CBC News)

Striking foreign service workers are accusing the federal government of bargaining in bad faith and have filed a complaint with the Public Service Labour Relations Board.

It's the third move made by the Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers this week in its attempt to pressure the government to enter arbitration and settle a contract dispute.

On Monday, foreign service officers at Canada's 15 busiest visa processing centres abroad walked off the job and on Tuesday, employees in Ottawa held a demonstration outside Prime Minister Stephen Harper's office.

The labour relations board complaint comes after PAFSO and Treasury Board president Tony Clement failed to agree on sending the matter to an arbitrator, an option first proposed by the union on July 18. The government wanted to impose six conditions on the arbitration process and the union said they were so "paralyzing" it couldn't accept all of them. 

PAFSO agreed to three of the conditions, but Clement said the government wouldn't proceed unless all six were accepted. The outstanding conditions related to: the consideration of recruitment and retention issues by the arbitrator; severance pay; and comparing wages with other professional groups in the public service.

Union accepted some conditions

The union and government disagree on whether the foreign service has recruitment and retention concerns.

Wage differences with other public servants is one of the main reason PAFSO is on strike.

The union told the labour board in its complaint that the Treasury Board demanded conditions that "could not reasonably be accepted" and would have pre-determined the arbitration decision. In doing so, the government violated the duty to bargain in good faith under the law, PAFSO argues.

"PAFSO has made every reasonable effort to resolve this situation, including accepting three of the six preconditions Minister Clement sought to impose on free arbitration," Tim Edwards, PAFSO president, said in a statement.

"The government has not done the same. We can only conclude that Treasury Board is acting with prejudicial intent toward Canada's foreign service – behaviour that should be of serious concern to all Canadians. We are seeking judicial intervention to compel the government to negotiate in good faith."

The union, representing 1,350 members, wants the case heard by the labour board as soon as possible and for the board to order the two sides to go to binding arbitration.

The diplomats have been doing staggered withdrawals of service at various visa centres since the spring, which has slowed down applications. The co-ordinated walkout at the 15 busiest offices, until further notice, is expected to cause waiting times to grow even longer.

Tourists, international students, and temporary foreign workers are all being affected by the strike. The visa offices abroad are open and Citizenship and Immigration is taking measures to replace the striking staff that include bringing former staff out of retirement, training staff who don't normally process visas, and hiring locally.

Clement's office said Wednesday that the government continues to "bargain in good faith to achieve a fair deal," and that the union breached good faith by disclosing the conditions that the government wanted kept confidential.

"We are focused on a resolution that respects the interests of both employees and Canadian taxpayers," Matthew Conway, Clement's press secretary, said in an email. "The government is taking steps to continue to ensure service delivery in a timely fashion with the least amount of disruption to Canadians."