The strike of non-executive foreign service officers is taking a heavy toll and not just on those engaged in strike action. Visa applicants all around the world – potential immigrants, temporary workers and tourists alike – are now delayed indefinitely. Many have even been told not to bother applying. Who loses? Canada, big time. Our image as a nation that welcomes efficiently immigrants and visitors for tourism or business lies in shreds. Tourists, who normally flock to Canada in the summer season in the tens of thousands, are going elsewhere. So are business representatives and investors. Alas, no-one in Ottawa seems to care.

The Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers (PAFSO) is the union representing our non-executive diplomats, 1,350 of whom are stationed at headquarters and at Embassies and Consulates around the world. They represent less than half of the total foreign service, but they are the worker bees that keep the hives of immigration and diplomacy going.

The crux of the PAFSO complaint is that foreign service officers do not receive “equal pay for equivalent work”. In fact, they are paid up to $14,000 less annually than economists, commercial officers and policy analysts who perform similar tasks, often in adjoining offices. Not all employees at DFATD or CIC are members of the foreign service and the imbalance exists at our foreign missions as well as at headquarters because the foreign service has no monopoly on positions at our offices abroad.

If this were a case of gender discrimination, the dispute would have been resolved long ago. But diplomats presumably do not arouse the same acute sentiments of injustice. There seems to be no constituency of support for them, either within or outside government.

PAFSO has been in a legal position to strike since April 2 and has been adopting a variety of tactics to draw attention to their concern, including work to rule. The union is organizing strike actions to coincide with ministers’ trips abroad while targeting rolling walkouts at selected missions and at headquarters. More service withdrawals are contemplated.

The impact, especially during the summer, is huge and growing, most conspicuously in China. Global tourism from China has been increasing at 15 – 20 per cent per year, but Canada is literally off the list as Chinese tourists are going elsewhere along with their business representatives. Prolonged delays and lengthy procedures for Canadian visa applications are the opposite of a welcome mat.

For years, the government, namely Treasury Board, has refused to budge to PAFSO’s demands, ostensibly on the grounds that to compromise during a time of restraint and layoffs in the public service would serve as a dangerous precedent.

Regrettably, the false image of a cushy life for diplomats generates little sympathy from the general public and the “services” being curtailed attract little notice except from those directly affected. But a cushy life is not the world of today’s diplomats, many of whom toil in conditions that are far from salubrious.

PAFSO has agreed to the government’s two key demands – wage increases of 1.5 per cent per year (which is below average wage growth and inflation in Canada) and the elimination of severance pay on retirement and resignation. What they have asked in return is that the maximum pay at each level for foreign service officers be at parity with their peers in the rest of government.  The cost of eliminating the wage gaps over the three years of the contract would be a measly $4.2 million. According to the Tourist Industry Association of Canada, the loss estimated for the tourist sector this summer alone is $280 million – a classic example of ‘penny -wise, pound foolish’.

It is somewhat bizarre that diplomats were obliged to form a bargaining unit or union ever since the door was open to collective bargaining for public servants by the government of Canada’s foremost diplomat, Lester Pearson. But such are the vagaries of employment practices in the public service. Having been compelled to organize as union members, it should be no surprise that, when rebuffed on a basic matter of principle, they invoke normal, union strike tactics. What is equally bizarre, however, is that no-one seems to care whether these grievances will be addressed. That mocks both the principle and the practice of collective bargaining.

The government takes the view that the foreign service is a “highly sought after and well-paid posting.”  This is half true. When there are competitions for entry positions, many more apply than are accepted. Success ratios for entry through a rigorous exam and interview process were often as low as one per 1,000 applicants.

The problem is that, according to Treasury Board statistics, up to half of each class of recruits leaves the foreign service within 14 years of joining. That is a terrible retention rate for any profession. Imagine if doctors, dentists, or university professors bailed out in the same numbers. We would be calling it a major national crisis. PAFSO contends that more equitable pay for diplomats, costing less than 2.5 per cent of the total Foreign Service payroll, would alleviate some of the retention problem.

The foreign service used to be a magnet for public service in Canada, attracting the best and brightest from our universities. Many recruits went on to serve with distinction at the most senior levels in departments other than Foreign Affairs.

But the “golden days” of diplomacy are long gone and the magnetic appeal of foreign service is fading fast, along with Canada’s international image.

The failure of anyone in government to move to mediate this dispute (now in its third year) is not just a signal of malign neglect.  It shows a distinct lack of respect, particularly for those whose basic task is not just to “represent” Canada to the world, but to get the world to do business with Canada.

Derek Burney was a member of PAFSO and eventually served as Ambassador to the United States.  An officer of the Order of Canada, he is a senior strategic advisor to Norton Rose Fulbright. Mr. Burney is chancellor of Lakehead University and a visiting professor and Senior Distinguished Fellow at Carleton University. Amongst his many previous roles are: chief of staff to the prime minister; president and CEO of CAE Inc.; and chairman and CEO of Bell Canada International Inc. He was involved in negotiation of the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement and was the prime minister’s personal representative in the lead-up to the 1990, 1991 and 1992 G-7 economic summits. Mr. Burney was awarded the Public Service of Canada’s Outstanding Achievement Award in 1992 and was conferred Honorary Doctor of Laws degrees from Lakehead University, Queen’s University, Wilfrid Laurier University, Carleton University and University of Windsor. His memoir of government service – “Getting it Done” – was published by McGill-Queen’s in 2005.

Fen Osler Hampson is a Distinguished Fellow and director of Global Security at the Centre for International Governance Innovation. He is also chancellor’s professor at Carleton University. He is the author of nine books and editor/co-editor of more than 25 other volumes on international affairs and Canadian foreign policy.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.