Experts divided over foreign service strike’s impact on Canada’s brand
By Michelle Zilio | Jul 29, 2013
As the foreign service strike intensifies, experts are divided on the overall impact of the union’s job actions on Canada’s image abroad.
The Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers (PAFSO) has been in a legal strike position since April 2 and without a contract since June 2011. The union is demanding equal pay for equal work because some junior diplomats earn up to $14,000 less than colleagues doing the same work in Ottawa.
The union has taken job action over the past two months, including targeted rotating strikes and picketing at major Canadian missions. The effects of the strike have been felt around the world, especially by frustrated visa applicants.
However, the impact of the strike on Canada’s international stature is a topic for debate among Canadian foreign policy experts.
For Andrew Cohen, an Ottawa-based columnist and author of While Canada Slept: How We Lost Our Place in the World, the strike has reflected badly on the Canadian government.
“There’s been a great deal of skepticism about how this government has treated diplomats and how we treaty diplomacy,” he said.
Cohen said there’s a long history of foreign service officers being underpaid in comparison to their equivalents who work as economists and lawyers in the public service. He highlighted the fact that most PAFSO members have at least two university degrees, speak two or more languages and carry impressive resumes — something that should be reflected in their compensation. Despite the stereotype of diplomats wining and dining in swanky restaurants and homes abroad, many foreign service officers live in modest, sometimes dangerous, conditions without fair compensation for the compromises they make, he said.
The Treasury Board begs to differ. It said the union has been presented with a fair offer and highlighted some of the perks, known as Foreign Service Directives, members are entitled to. These include a reimbursement of up to 50 per cent for dry cleaning expenses, the shipment of personal vehicles and household items to a diplomat’s posting, and a foreign service incentive allowance recognizing the challenges associated with living abroad.
But Cohen said he thinks the Treasury Board’s “stubborn” attitude reflects more than just a refusal to entertain PAFSO’s demands for equal pay.
“Does this simply reflect a distaste for not just public servants but particularly diplomats? And is it playing to a public sense that these are pampered, spoiled public servants who wander around at cocktail parties and sip sherry in tuxedos, in leather back chairs and have a view of diplomacy from the 1940s,” said Cohen. “I think when you talk to foreign officers today, that’s not so at all.”
Cohen, a loud critic of Canada’s “pinch-penny diplomacy” and foreign policy, said the government’s inability to come to an agreement with its own diplomats simply adds to the country’s “diminishing” international image, which, in the past, has been fueled by its lack of involvement at the world stage. He cited Canada’s recent withdrawal from the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification and its failure to win a UN Security Council seat in 2010.
“I think it makes us look like a smaller, more parochial place that really cares less and less about its stature in the world,” said Cohen.
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird’s Press Secretary Rick Roth said he rejects the “assumption” that the strike has affected Canada’s image abroad.
“Canadian diplomats are still working around the world standing up for Canadian interests and values – and Canada’s stellar reputation reflects this ongoing work,” he said in an email.
While other experts agree the PAFSO strike has affected Canada’s reputation, they question how far-reaching that effect has been.
Former Canadian ambassador Paul Heinbecker said the communities affected by the strike, such as students, visitors, business people and immigrants applying for Canadian visas, are probably more likely to rethink Canada’s image.
“With those particular communities, it affects the image of Canada. Will it affect the image of Canada with the man in the street? Probably not,” said Heinbecker. “It affirms that Canada is a difficult country to get into, … arbitrary and unpredictable.”
Daryl Copeland, who worked as a Canadian diplomat for 30 years, serving on the PAFSO executive, said the strike has probably not done any long-term damage to the Canadian brand because the “boutique union” represents such a small portion of the Canadian federal public service. But he also said the strike hasn’t exactly improved Canada’s image.
“I think it would be safe to say that it’s unlikely to have burnished the reputation because it’s caused undoubtedly some people inconvenience,” said Copeland.
Former PAFSO President Colin Robertson, who served as a foreign service offer from 1977 to 2010, said he believes the union’s demands are legitimate, but completely rejected the notion that the strike has damaged the Canadian brand.
“I think if you asked anybody abroad and said did you know the Canadian foreign service is on strike? They would look at you like you’re on Mars,” said Robertson.
Putting questions of Canada’s image aside, Robertson said the strike is definitely having an impact in a way the union and Treasury Board probably never expected — on the Canadian economy.
According to PAFSO President Tim Edwards, rotating strikes involving immigration officers have resulted in a 60 to 65 per cent drop in visa issuance in targeted missions and a 25 per cent drop system wide. Canada’s tourism, education and business sectors have especially felt the effects of delayed visa issuance.
The longer the strike continues, the more Canada will lose, said Robertson. For instance, if a visa applicant applies to Canada and doesn’t get their visa in time, they will start to look — and take their ambition, knowledge and money — elsewhere.
“If they can’t get to Canada, they say, ‘Alright I’ll go to the States, Australia, Europe.’ They get an experience there but they don’t get the experience in Canada. That’s not just a cost in tourism, that’s a cost in opportunity and investment.”
While experts agree on the impact of the strike on the Canadian economy, it remains unclear how the strike has affected the business of government.
In an email statement last week, PAFSO said the union’s job actions have contributed to the cancellation or postponement of more than a dozen cabinet-level visits or trip segments since mid-May, including trips to the U.S., Middle East and Asia. It did not elaborate on which specific visits were affected. However, Baird’s office had a firm response to the union’s claim — zero trips have been affected. Both sides continue to stick to their guns.
As of Monday, the strike was ongoing. Following an offer from PAFSO to enter into third-party binding arbitration, Treasury Board agreed under conditions — something that baffled Heinbecker.
“It sounds like the government is trying to negotiate the arbitration, in order words setting preconditions to the arbitration, which would defeat the purpose of the arbitration. If that’s what’s going on, then it’s bad faith by the government,” said Heinbecker.
After nearly a week of negotiation between the striking foreign service and Treasury Board, an attempt to reach an agreement to enter binding arbitration failed Friday, leading diplomats to move ahead with walks outs at fifteen of Canada’s largest visa processing centres. As the two sides continue to argue over who brought the attempt to arbitrate to a halt, the negotiation process seems to have come to a standstill.
Until an agreement is reached, the union said there will be no change in PAFSO’s job actions, including rotating strikes and picketing. Experts agree that the longer the strike continues, the more Canada risks tarnishing its image at home and abroad.