In 2012, Canada welcomed a record number of new international students, and has since announced significant new funding to improve visa processing times as well as concrete steps aimed at cutting wait times for study visas.
What bad timing then that recent months have seen an escalating labour action by Canada’s foreign service officers (including those that process tourist and study visas), resulting in considerable delays in visa processing that threaten to impede student mobility to Canada.
Canadian foreign service officers protesting at the Canadian embassy in Washington, D.C., May 2013. Source: Charles Dharapak/Associated Press.
To this point, rotating strikes have moved among a relatively small number of visa application centres in key markets, such as Beijing, Delhi, Sao Paolo, and Mexico City.
But now, on the heels of a failed attempt to refer the dispute to binding arbitration the union representing Canada’s foreign service officers – the Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers (PAFSO) – has announced its intention to expand its job action to Canada’s 15 largest missions abroad:
“Effective today [29 July, 2013], in order to persuade the [Government of Canada] that binding arbitration remains the responsible way forward to resolve our dispute, PAFSO members will withdraw all services until further notice at Canada’s fifteen largest visa processing centres abroad: Abu Dhabi, Ankara, Beijing, Cairo, Delhi/Chandigarh, Hong Kong, London, Manila, Mexico City, Moscow, Paris, Riyadh, Sao Paulo, and Shanghai.”
Wait times of up to six weeks
Even before this dramatic announcement, it has been difficult to track the precise impacts of job action to date on visa processing times. It seems clear, however, that the delays have been significant, especially in major centres that have been the targets of rotating strikes in June and July.
The Tourism Industry Association of Canada (TIAC) has reported that visitors from Mexico and China were experiencing wait times of up to six weeks for tourist visas, as opposed to average processing times of five to 10 days before the strike.
TIAC President David Goldstein has put the potential value of lost tourism business at CAD $280 million for 2013, and has warned that the cost to Canada’s reputation could be greater still. “There are plenty of other more accessible countries happy to welcome [international travellers’] business,” he noted.
More dramatically, officials at the Canadian Embassy in Bogota, Colombia have gone so far as to recommend that prospective visitors consider other destinations during the labour dispute. Canada’s Globe & Mail newspaper quoted from an unofficial communiqué from the Bogota embassy in early July:
“All Canadian visa offices around the world are working at reduced capacity and processing times for visa applications are uncertain at the moment. So we recommend looking for other options for a trip that do not include a stop in Canada.”
Tim Edwards, the president of PAFSO, has estimated that the number of visas issued in major markets, such as India or China, dropped by 60–65% in June alone and that overall issuance rates are down 25% worldwide.
For its part, Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC) has advised students to “anticipate delays and submit their application as far in advance as possible,” but notes as well that the department’s “posted processing times for both temporary and permanent resident visa applications do not take into account work stoppages.”
“If we lose them now, we will lose them for four years.”
Needless to say, Canada’s education sector is braced for impact as the PAFSO job action occurs at a critical time of year when students are planning to enter Canada to begin their studies, whether over the key summer season or for the start of the academic year in September.
“The crunch is coming for September admissions, they will need their visas by early to mid-August,” said Paul Brennan, vice-president of international partnerships at the Association of Canadian Community Colleges in an interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. “We’re quite worried that unless this is resolved or special measures are taken, students will not get their visas in time.”
The Toronto Star newspaper is reporting that some universities and colleges in Canada have extended registration deadlines for international students, while others are allowing foreign students to defer their admission to January.
“The University of Toronto, for example, has developed a visa tracking system to follow up with their foreign students to see if they can get their visas on time for orientation. At York University, the deadline of arrival for foreign students has been extended for a week to 15 September.”
“Right now, foreign students are at a point they have to decide where they are going this fall,” said Gail Bowkett, director of international relations for the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada in an interview with the Toronto Star. “The concern is if they can’t get the visa to Canada, they are going to choose another country. If we lose them now, we will lose them for four years.”
The central issue in the dispute is pay, and some observers expect the current stand-off to extend into the fall. While PAFSO represents foreign service workers based in Canada and at posts abroad, their employer, the Government of Canada, is represented on the file by the Treasury Board of Canada, the department responsible for contract negotiations. The Globe & Mail sums up the situation as follows:
“The two sides are at odds over the salary ranges paid to the public service. The union says it pales to comparable professions elsewhere in government, while Mr. Clement has rejected the comparisons and noted that foreign service jobs are already in high demand. The government’s offer is ‘fair and reasonable,’ he said. The union is asking for raises of between $3,000 and $14,000 for each of its roughly 1,350 members.”
Treasury Board President Tony Clement has characterised the union’s demands as out of step with other recent contract negotiations between the Government of Canada and its public-sector unions. And, for the moment at least, both sides seem firmly entrenched in their respective positions.
“We take no pleasure whatsoever in these strike actions and their real, severe, and mounting effects on the Canadian economy,” said the foreign service union in its official statement on the escalating strike action. “PAFSO encourages all individuals, businesses, and industry associations with a stake in the outcome of our dispute to intervene with the Government and urge them to bargain freely and flexibly with their own employees.”