Columns

Diplomacy on the cheap

Andrew Phillips April 10 2000
Columns

Diplomacy on the cheap

Andrew Phillips April 10 2000

Diplomacy on the cheap

Washington

Andrew Phillips

It’s not exactly at the top of national concerns, but spare a thought for the plight of Canadas diplomats, the (mostly quite young) men and women who negotiate treaties, stick-handle disputes with other countries, generally manage relations with the rest of the world. These days they are not happy campers, not at all.

The problem, simply put, is money. Their pay is lousy, not only compared with what people with similar qualifications make in the private sector, but with what other government departments pay for the same kind of work. For a few years, the foreign-service types mostly suffered in silence. Lately, though, they’ve been speaking out in ways that are, well, less than diplomatic. Whenever ministers have visited Canadian missions abroad in the past few weeks, they’ve been handed polite but pointed letters condemning working conditions for foreign service officers as “absurd” and “unfair.” The campaign began in January at the Canadian Embassy here in Washington, where staff lobbied International Trade Minister Pierre Pettigrew and Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy. It’s since spread far afield, to Beijing, Kuala Lumpur, Nairobi, Vienna—several dozen locations in all.

A few youngish embassy staffers gathered last week to air their beefs. This being Washington and they being diplomats, the revolution took place over lattes at a Starbucks a couple of blocks from the embassy. They were an impressive bunch, and (the fogyish reputation of diplomats notwithstanding) there was not a pinstripe among them. All have advanced degrees—in law, economics, international relations and languages. Two of them have two graduate degrees apiece. Perceptions of canape-nibbling international bureaucrats aside, a lot of the work they do is important to the livelihood of regular Canadians: one was off to Geneva the next day to defend the Auto Pact before the World Trade Organization.

All insist they love their work, but they worry that they can’t keep on doing it on salaries that start at $36,210, about as much as a rookie firefighter. They top out at just under $69,000 a year, and it can take a decade or more to get there. Other benefits and perks are supposed to compensate, but they don’t make up for the currency difference in, for example, the United States, or for the loss of one income in a twocareer family. “There’s a lot of satisfaction in working for your country,” said one, “but it’s becoming a luxury we can’t afford.” Another ventured that the department is trying to follow the “Catholic church model—you take a vow of poverty and assume a lifelong vocation. That doesn’t cut it any more.” The fortunate few who make it into the executive ranks of Foreign Affairs earn more. But for a decade or so, budget cuts and a glut of entrenched managers have made promotion increasingly difficult. Like all federal employees, foreign service staff endured five years of pay freezes in the mid-’90s. What really riled them, though, was a salary offer just before Christmas—a measly one per cent. That has since been doubled to two per cent; the 1,050 foreign service officers rejected it in early March and are still in contract talks.

What galls them most is that others, even in government, make substantially more. A justice department lawyer assigned to an embassy can make 20 per cent more than a lawyer in the foreign service. Even worse, locally hired staff supervised by Canadian diplomats often earn more. In a letter to ministers that quickly became public, former prime minister Kim Campbell, now consul-general in Los Angeles, notes that the receptionist there is paid more than the second-in-command of the consulate’s immigration section. Campbell told the ministers she was “frankly shocked” that the Canadians are paid so little. Other heads of mission—including Ambassador Raymond Chrétien in Washington, diplomats here confide—are also backing the protest, though more discreetly. Several have written to deputy ministers.

Why care? Partly because you get what you pay for—and right now Ottawa isn’t paying much for the people who represent it abroad. More important, because foreign service officers are, predictably, quitting in droves. Attrition rates are at record levels as they find better-paying jobs at law firms, banks, trade associations and such. These people have been trained, often at great expense, by the Canadian taxpayer. One bright young man who left the service last week to take a job in Asia with an international financial company put it this way: “Do taxpayers really want to pay to train people for American Express? Right now, the government is investing in us and letting us go without much of a fight. Is that what we want?” Good question.