A Worldwide FSN Association at State: Advancing a Practical Dream

Speaking Out


Locally Employed staff of the U.S. Department of State—also known as Foreign Service Nationals, or FSNs—deserve to have a professional organization of their own, one that represents them within the department. This corps of local experts numbers more than 55,000; it is the largest employee group within the State Department. Yet, unlike the two other main groups of employees, LE staff have no organization to represent them, to safeguard their interests, and to promote excellence and professionalism among their ranks. (AFSA represents more than 16,000 members of the Foreign Service, active-duty and retired; while the American Federation of Government Employees represents the department’s more than 12,000 Civil Service employees).

FSNs are not a homogenous group. Most of them are nationals of the host country, but many are U.S. citizens or third-country nationals. The term “Locally Employed staff,” which the department now uses, has never been popular with FSNs because it sets them apart from the Foreign Service, whereas they consider themselves full members of that body. They are distinct from other State employees only in that they are hired locally, by individual embassies, and not by department headquarters in Washington.

Despite having officially changed their name, the Department of State itself considers FSNs employees of the department—not individual embassies— and oversees their management from Washington. Though hired in the local economy, the framework in which FSNs operate is one that is designed and controlled by headquarters following a topdown model. It is therefore essential for FSNs to have a voice at the departmental level. They should be heard when important management decisions are taken that affect the workings of the missions.

After all, because their tenure transcends the three- to four-year cycles of members of the Foreign Service, they represent the collective memory of the missions and are often called the “backbone” of the embassies. They understand the local culture and sensibilities, and can provide essential feedback to Washington, as well as to the individual missions. In matters of security this unexploited resource can make a difference.

A worldwide FSN association could offer significant benefits to State’s mission by building a relationship of collaboration and strong, effective support for the promotion of U.S. policy goals around the world. The benefits of such an FSN organization to its members would be even greater; it would serve as a mechanism to promote professionalism and excellence within the community, resulting in higher job satisfaction and productivity. And it would be a channel for the State Department to communicate with the FSN community on all matters related to FSNs, such as human resources, training, collaboration projects and best practices.

A Sustained Initiative

FSNs have made attempts to be heard, as Wendy Lubetkin and I explained in a June 2012 article in the Journal, “Local Employees Seek a Dialogue with Washington.” FSNs created the International Foreign Service Association in 2009 in response to a series of sudden changes in their terms of employment and with the recommendation of an Office of Inspector General report. That May 2007 OIG report, No. ISO-I-07-16, had noted that Locally Employed staff is the only category of staff in the foreign affairs community that does not have any representation at the Washington level and recommended creating an organization representing this worldwide community of, then, 54,000. Local personnel associations in more than 80 countries chose to affiliate with the association and elected a 13-member IFSA Board.

Empowered by its constituency IFSA tried to engage senior management at the State Department in a social dialogue. In a letter dated Nov. 25, 2009, to Director General of the Foreign Service and Director of Human Resources Nancy J. Powell, IFSA requested Powell’s “help to formalize a constructive working relationship between IFSA and the Department.” Deputy Assistant Secretary J. Robert Manzanares responded to that letter thus: “While 3 FAM 7290 provides guidance on establishing associations at the post level, an international association, such as you are proposing, is new ground for us and will require coordination with our legal experts to ensure that proper guidance is offered.”

This corps of local experts numbers more than 55,000; it is the largest employee group within the State Department.

IFSA sent three letters to the head of the Foreign Service, but each request for an opportunity to discuss the circumstances that would allow both parties to work together to form a trust-building collaboration was rebuffed. State charged IFSA with trying to become a labor union, and asserted it was not in a position to recognize a union of FSN employees. In response to IFSA’s third letter, State argued: “IFSA’s stated core objective ‘to protect the interests and the rights of the locally employed staff’ reads as that of a union,” and “in compliance with 3 FAM we encourage you and other colleagues to raise such issues through post management to the bureaus and offices which remain committed to addressing LE staff concerns back here in the department.” We were shocked by this response and felt let down by our employer.

Unfortunately, no one at State saw the need to focus on IFSA’s other core objectives, such as its goal “to improve staff morale, better working conditions and strengthen the relationship of the locally engaged staff within the foreign affairs community.” IFSA could perhaps have changed some of the wording of its objectives, which in turn might have allowed the State Department to recognize an employee association. Regrettably, the department never communicated to us the conditions under which it would be willing to meet us halfway.

After several years of fruitless effort to engage State Department officials, IFSA saw only one option to break the deadlock: team up with a U.S.-based labor union and address the State Department unionization issue directly. IFSA called on the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers to begin the negotiations, because it felt this organization had much more experience than IFSA with representing similar categories of employees within other organizations.

Meeting a Brick Wall

In August 2013 the State Department rejected a request from IFSA/IFPTE to discuss instituting a union or, failing that, an association to represent Locally Employed staff. The State Department’s chief labor-management negotiator rejected both, writing on Aug. 9 to IFSA: “Unionization at diplomatic and consular missions is fundamentally incompatible with the basic functions and operations of such missions.” He added that unionization “could, frankly, put our foreign relations and national security at risk.” And he further stated: “The [State] Department has no interest in pursuing this discussion further.”

That letter was only the final step in a long process during which IFSA had tried to engage the State Department in a dialog. But the reference to a national security threat was as painful as it was unnecessary. More than 12,000 FSNs work in security positions all over the world protecting U.S. diplomats, U.S. citizens and embassy facilities. And since 1998, many more FSNs have been killed in the line of duty than U.S. Foreign Service members.

Unionization has never been IFSA’s priority; emancipating the Locally Employed staff is. IFSA’s core objective is to protect the interests and the rights of the LE staff. IFSA is aware of the problem posed by 3 FAM 7295, which bars recognition of a union of FSN employees. But there are other core objectives of IFSA that need to be discussed and compromises reached.

Yet State seemed to have no intention of recognizing IFSA in any form. In a last-ditch effort to make a deal, IFPTE Secretary-Treasurer Paul Shearon managed to arrange another meeting at State, this time with Secretary of State John Kerry’s Chief of Staff David Wade and Special Representative for International Labor Affairs Barbara Shailor. That meeting was cordial, but ineffective. Wade was not in a position to overturn the official rejection of IFSA; and Barbara Shailor, the newly named point person to address workers’ concerns, retired the following month.

In the five years following these exchanges, nothing has happened to reconcile the opposing positions.

The Issue Is Not Moot

The International Foreign Service Association has had no alternative since 2013 but to wait for the State Department to develop a more nuanced view on personnel relations and representation. Many FSNs have continued to meet with post management in staff associations at the local level, but the 2017 wage freeze and the inability of local management to negotiate without the consent of Washington have made progress impossible.

Today the mood within the FSN community swings between hope and despair. Some are hopeful that the State Department will eventually see the benefits of partnering with a worldwide FSN association, while others think that we are farther away than ever from finding common ground.

However, the issue is not moot. When it comes to conditions of labor, the U.S. Department of State is not the only foreign affairs agency that has tried to keep its local embassy workers within the strict limits of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (1961). While defining a framework for diplomatic relations between independent countries, the Vienna Convention has left LE staff in a legal vacuum: their rights are not defined, and this lack of rights has led to abuse. But more than 50 years after ratification of the Vienna Convention, workplace conditions, as well as labor relations, have drastically changed. And a growing awareness that embassy employees are entitled to some legal protections has led to new insights and initiatives at diplomatic hubs all over the world.

A worldwide FSN association could offer significant benefits to State’s mission by building a relationship of collaboration and strong, effective support for the promotion of U.S. policy goals around the world.

Countries such as France, Portugal and Spain are stepping in to recognize the rights for citizens of their country employed by foreign or international organizations. These three countries allow individuals working for foreign entities to participate in employee-management relationships. In these countries local embassy staff can participate in employee representational elections just like the staff of any other government agency. On the Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs website, France’s diplomatic authorities stipulate that “locally engaged staff, whatever their nationality, are covered by French labor law, which must be implemented in its entirety.”

Elsewhere, Italy has issued a set of labor laws specifically tailored toward locally engaged staff working in diplomatic missions: “Provisions governing employment with Embassies, Consulates, Legations, Cultural Institutes and International Organisations in Italy.” And Belgium has created a mediation committee, the “Commission des Bons Offices,” to resolve conflicts between local embassy employees and diplomatic missions.

Though it is difficult for foreign affairs ministries to overcome the perceived threat from organizations representing local employees, countries such as Brazil and Uruguay are accepting the idea that their local employees can be represented by a worldwide organization. Loosening the strict interpretation of the Vienna Convention with regard to locally recruited employees has changed the working conditions in many diplomatic missions, especially in the embassies of developing countries.

What about State?

So far the State Department has failed to make progress in this area. State’s refusal to recognize its largest segment of employees has left no winners, only losers. Within the U.S. foreign affairs community the issue remains unresolved. Local employees working in U.S. embassies have not yet been given access to a transparent and clearly codified human resources process or a credible system of justice in Washington. They continue to be isolated, without any mechanism to reflect on, discuss and mediate work-related issues on regional and worldwide levels.

A worldwide professional organization to represent local employees would allow them to become full-fledged partners in the mission of the State Department. State would do well to give its full support to such an association and recognize FSNs as a major component of its workforce. FSNs would feel empowered, and the department would take a big step toward becoming a truly inclusive employer.

But rather than building strength through unity, State has opted for the status quo and a compartmentalized organization, with FSNs as the only employee group without any way to interact with its employer. In so doing, State is missing an opportunity to create an integrated department and put into practice the ideals it so forcefully promotes via the labor program it advocates in foreign capitals.

Only mutual trust can break the deadlock, and building trust is a lengthy process. The question must be asked: Has State closed the door forever on this very practical dream?

Eddy Olislaeger is a retired Foreign Service National employee. He founded the International Foreign Service Association in 2009 and became its first elected chairman in 2011. He worked for more than 40 years as a public affairs specialist at Embassy Brussels before retiring from the Department of State in 2012. He received the Secretary’s Career Achievement Award for his “contributions to the United States’ essential public diplomacy efforts around the world.” He is the author, with Wendy Lubetkin, of “Local Employees Seek a Dialogue with Washington” in the June 2012 FSJ. Currently he is vice chair of the Intersyndicale des Missions Diplomatiques in Brussels, Belgium.