Editorial: Long dispute looms as diplomats seek to close pay gap with federal lawyers

Should foreign-service officers striking against the federal government earn as much as public-sector lawyers?

That’s one of the key issues in the escalating job action at immigration processing centres around the world. The union representing the foreign-service officers, the Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers, is battling to close a pay gap between its members and other government professionals such as lawyers, economists, commerce officers, and policy analysts. The gap ranges from $3,000 to $14,000 per year, according to the association.

The government has dug in its heels, arguing foreign-service jobs are unique and not comparable to other positions (it went as far as trying to preclude such a comparison in its response to the union’s proposal for binding arbitration). Moreover, it has noted there are lots of people eager to join the foreign service. In turn, the union recently stepped up its campaign by filing a bad-faith bargaining complaint against the government with the Public Service Labour Relations Board.

Both sides have valid points. There’s no doubt there are lots of applicants for diplomatic postings and that working in the foreign service is different from a lawyer’s job with, for example, the Department of Justice. But according to the association, many of its members are in fact lawyers who provide legal advice that’s subject to solicitor-client privilege on issues such as trade negotiations. But when the government designates their position as a foreign-service one, they earn less than someone classified as a lawyer. In addition, a spokeswoman for the association tells Law Times the government began using the designations interchangeably in recent years, meaning people doing similar jobs would work literally next to each other but may earn different pay depending on their official classification in either the foreign service’s legal bureau or as a lawyer. So according to the association, the dispute isn’t about comparing diplomats to lawyers at the Justice Department. Instead, it’s about equal pay for people doing the same work.

The association, then, does have a point and certainly a valid reason for complaining, particularly in light of the Association of Justice Counsel’s victory last year in scoring a 15-per-cent wage increase to close a growing pay gap with comparators such as provincial lawyers. But unfortunately, it’s raising the issue at a difficult time. With the federal government determined to eliminate the deficit by 2015, it’s in no mood to grant substantive wage increases even if doing so wouldn’t cost very much. And taking a stand against the association is good politics and sends the message that it will remain firm against other labour groups seeking larger wage increases.

In addition, an employer doesn’t necessarily have a duty to pay people the same for similar work. In non-union settings, pay differentials happen all the time, particularly since employees often don't know how much their colleagues earn. So barring discrimination on a prohibited ground, the government can pay people differently. Of course, the whole idea of the job action is to get the government to see otherwise through the bargaining process. And while the government hints that the foreign-service officers are replaceable when it notes the long lines up people eager to do diplomatic work, it’s a bit of a moot point given that it’s unlikely it could replace all of them.

In the meantime, the public and the economy suffer with a job action that’s affecting visa-processing times. The government says there’s no more money while the union says it has gone far enough by accepting a 1.5-per-cent wage increase per year (separate from closing the gap with other professionals) and an end to severance pay on retirement and resignation. In the end, while the union has valid points, there’s little support right now for protracted labour disputes. But with foreign-service officers reportedly receiving 100 per cent of their pay as strike pay on days they withdraw their services, it looks like we may be in for a long dispute unless the government can find some solution that addresses the union’s core complaint.
Glenn Kauth

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