Striking diplomats target Harper's office in protest

Foreign service officers held a protest Tuesday outside Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Ottawa office as part of their ongoing strike that is showing few signs of being resolved after the union's offer to go to arbitration with the government failed to go ahead.

Foreign service officers are off the job at 15 visa centres abroad

Striking foreign service officers demonstrated outside Prime Minister Stephen Harper's office in Ottawa on Tuesday. (Meagan Fitzpatrick/CBC News)

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's office in Ottawa was the target of a protest today by striking foreign service officers who are battling with the government to get a pay raise.

The Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers (PAFSO) created a picket line outside of the Prime Minister's Office, across the street from Parliament Hill, during lunch hour.

The striking diplomats carried signs that read "Same work equals same pay" and "Canada's Frontline Abroad" while blowing whistles and using other noisemakers. A spokeswoman for Harper would not say whether the prime minister was in his office or not.

Peter Bundy, a diplomat who was posted in Colombia and now works in Ottawa, said PAFSO has made an effort to bargain in good faith.

"We hope that Treasury Board will come back to the table," he said.

Talks between the union and the government broke down in June and the two sides haven't sat down at the bargaining table since then. The union offered to settle the dispute by arbitration but Treasury Board president Tony Clement agreed only if PAFSO accepted certain conditions, which the government wanted kept confidential.

When PAFSO accepted three of the six conditions the government said it would not move forward with arbitration. The conditions they accepted were: ending the job action immediately; selecting an arbitrator by mutual consent; cap salary increases at 1.5 per cent per year for the three-year contract.

The union said it couldn't agree to the other conditions because they would have predetermined the outcome of the arbitration. Treasury Board wanted to prohibit the union from raising the comparative wage issue at the arbitration table, an issue that is at the very heart of the strike.

It also wanted the arbitrator to put an emphasis on the foreign service not having recruitment and retention difficulties, something the union disputes, and the Treasury Board also wanted to eliminate any severance pay before arbitration.

"It would not have been a fair fight," said Edwards. "But that seems to be all that Minister Clement is interested in at this point, is stacking the deck in his favour."

Visa slowdown at 15 offices abroad

Tuesday's protest comes a day after PAFSO members simultaneously walked off the job at 15 visa processing centres in major cities around the world including Beijing, Mexico City, Paris, Cairo and Delhi. The escalated job action will increase the backlog that has already been growing because of rotating strikes that started in the spring.

Foreign service officers held a demonstration in front of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's office Tuesday, across the street from Parliament Hill. (Meagan Fitzpatrick/CBC News)

The slowdown in processing applications is affecting tourists, businesspeople, temporary foreign workers and international students and the union believes it's having a "severe" economic impact. The tourism industry has estimated it could lose at least $280 million this summer.

"This is purposefully the worst period of time of the year to endure this type of work action and we just hope the parties can get back together and come to a solution so we can get back into business," David Goldstein, president and CEO of the Tourism Industry Association of Canada, told CBC's Hannah Thibedeau.

Tour operators who lose five or six customers because they can't get visas have possibly just lost their entire profit margin on a tour, said Goldstein. Travel agents, bus companies, restaurants, hotels, attractions are all affected, he added.

PAFSO said businesses and individuals who are affected should pressure Harper and Clement to settle the dispute with the union.

Citizenship and Immigration is training existing staff who don't normally process visas, bringing some people out of retirement and sending some executive-level staff from Ottawa abroad to fill in for the striking workers.

"There's no way that the people they're bringing in to fill in for striking employees at our visa application centres abroad can compensate for the loss of these highly trained, high-performing professionals," said Tim Edwards, president of PAFSO. "They have no idea what they're doing."

The government and union are accusing each other of bargaining in bad faith.

"We are disappointed that the union has refused our reasonable offer," Matthew Conway, press secretary for Clement, wrote in an email Tuesday. "Our government is committed to bargaining in good faith, unlike the union, which has breached good faith bargaining principles by releasing confidential negotiating documents."  

Diplomats want equal pay

"We remain open to a resolution that respects the interests of both taxpayers and foreign service union members," he said.

Andrew Bundy's father is a foreign service officer who brought him to a demonstration outside of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's office on Tuesday, July 30, in Ottawa. (Meagan Fitzpatrick/CBC News)

The main issue the two sides can't agree on is money. The union argues foreign service officers who work as policy analysts, lawyers, or economists, for example, don't get paid the same as public servants who do those jobs outside of the foreign service and they want a salary boost to close the gap.

Foreign service officers say they make $3,000 to $14,000 less than some colleagues who work in neighbouring offices in Ottawa.

Edwards argued foreign service officers deserve to be paid even more because of the added challenges and sacrifices they and their families face when they are posted abroad, but for now they are just fighting for wages equal to other public servants.

"All we want is to catch up with those public servants in Ottawa doing the same work as us," said Edwards.

The government argues that foreign service officers have highly sought after jobs and that they have unique jobs that can't be compared to others.

"These jobs are substantively different from public service lawyers, economists or commerce officers," Conway wrote.

PAFSO said it is still willing to go to arbitration but for now there are no talks scheduled between the union and the government about that possibility.