Robyn Benson, PSAC

EI changes: blaming the victims, cont'd.

sylvie therrien.JPG

Sylvie Therrien is my idea of a hero.

She’s a front-line worker for Human Resources Canada whose job has been to disqualify EI claimants, and her conscience rebelled. Given a quota of nearly half a million dollars to seize from unemployed workers, she said, “It just was against my values, harassing claimants… trying to penalize them in order to save money for the government.”

The last straw was when she heard the Minister of Human Resources, Diane Finley, state in the House of Commons that no quotas were in place. So she leaked some documents to the media to prove the contrary.

The embarrassed government, caught in a lie, tried to bluster its way out by saying these weren’t quotas, but “targets.” It then set out on an internal witchhunt to find out who the whistleblower was.

Having now done so, Sister Therrien has been suspended without pay, and is facing the possibility of dismissal.

I have written about EI changes in the past, and the government’s strategic habit of victim-blaming. There are two distinct sets of victims here: innocent EI claimants, and the “integrity officers” who are sent out to hassle them on a regular basis.

Let’s dispense with this “target” nonsense first off. That’s a feeble semantic game. No front-line workers would see any practical difference: whatever name you want to call the money involved, they are expected to recover it.

But how are the actual numbers arrived at? What are they based on? There is no indication that they have anything at all to do with the reality of unemployed people needing insurance benefits to tide them over—benefits that they have helped to finance themselves with regular EI contributions while on the job.

So, make no mistake, quotas will claim innocent victims. The basic assumption built into this wretched system is that EI claimants are guilty until proven innocent. The stress of job loss, for many people quite traumatic enough, has now been compounded by new rules and inspections that make things far worse. And our members, caught in the middle, are expected to confront these workers on a regular basis on the assumption that they are defrauding the system, and squeeze money out of them to meet a pre-assigned “target.”

This obviously makes things miserable for the unemployed, which is, I guess, the whole point. But it has the same effect on our members. It certainly did for Sylvie Therrien, whose conscience finally got the better of her.

Anyone remember this Conservative ad leading up to the 2006 election?

whistleblower pormise 2006.JPG

And here is what they were going to do about it:

Whistleblower plan.JPG

In a perfect world, Therrien would have been able to approach the Public Service Integrity Officer with her information—and that office, which currently has very little authority, would have the power to call the government to account. But this is the real world: one in which the previous Officer found not a single case of wrongdoing in five years, and whose successor, who has managed to find six, is reticent to make recommendations even when the breaches are flagrant. Facing that sort of brick wall, a conscientious public worker has little recourse but to make the wrongdoing public by other means.

Of special interest in the Conservatives’ 2006 plan is the last bullet: compensation for public workers who expose government wrongdoing. Lying to Parliament and to the people of Canada surely counts as wrongdoing—as well, of course, as the imposition of a brute-force benefits recovery system that targets the innocent and the guilty alike.

Therrien did the right thing, and in fact set a standard for genuine service to the public. She is being punished, however, not rewarded for her efforts. It’s the very opposite of what should have happened. With other observers, I need to ask: where is Sister Therrien’s cheque? It’s overdue.

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This page contains a single entry by Robyn Benson, PSAC published on July 23, 2013 10:32 AM.

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