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05/01/2013

Canadian embassy workers target mission in DC

It doesn't matter where you come from, the job of foreign service officer means you are pretty much wired, by tradition and training, not to rock the diplomatic boat.

So it speaks volumes about the unrest within the Canadian corps that frustration is now about to spread to Washington, where the Canadian Embassy will be the target of a picket by its own workers at high noon on Friday.

The DC action is the first of many at Canadian missions around the world, as the 1,350 members of the Professional Association of Foreign Service Workers expand a work-to-rule campaign for a new contract after their last one expired in 2011.

Will the spilling of the Harper government's dirty labour laundry on the steps of the busiest and highest-profile of Canada's embassies make a difference?

Thus far, the official word from Ottawa has remained firm, with the Treasury Board insisting, "The foreign service is a highly sought after and well-paid posting. The government will continue to negotiate in good faith to reach a reasonable settlement with PAFSO that is fair to workers and taxpayers."

PAFSO, as you would expect, has a different view. Union President Timothy Edwards, who will join Friday's picket in DC, says there is as yet little sign the Treasury Board is taking seriously the overriding grievance that foreign service officers lag far behind their Ottawa-based counterparts, earning anywhere from $3,000 to $14,000 less per year for work that routinely has them active in strange, sometimes dangerous places at all hours of the day and night.

The government holds that if the job is so bad, why are so many people lined up to get it? 

Edwards agrees "wholeheartedly -- there has never been a recruitment issue. Thousands line up for these jobs and only about the top 1 per cent make it. But the real problem comes in mid-career, when we see our members picking up and leaving for better pay, taking their experience and their contacts with them after the government has spent tens, if not hundreds of thousands, of dollars to develop knowledge and expertise essential to Canadian interests."

That diplomatic brain drain, PAFSO members tell the Star, comes at a cost. As the best and brightest cave to frustration and seek work elsewhere, the worry is some of the country's most sensitive files will slide down into the hands of lesser-experienced newbies.

So the union is banking on that message hitting home in DC, epicentre of the Harper government's most intense lobbying efforts. PAFSO, after all, includes among its membership the senior political officers involved in the eggshell-delicate effort to advance the Keystone XL pipeline.

"DC is our largest mission abroad and it has our largest complement of foreign service officers working on the key issues in Canada's international agenda," said Edwards. "Our goal is to raise the profile of this issue and there's no question Washington is the place to do it."

Mitch Potter is the Star's Washington Bureau Chief, his third foreign posting after previous assignments to London and Jerusalem. Potter led the Toronto Star’s coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he won a 2006 National Newspaper Award for his reportage. His dispatches include datelines from 33 countries since 2000. Follow him on Twitter: @MPwrites

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