Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Thursday there is a lot of misinformation about his government's changes to the employment insurance program and that there is no attack on seasonal workers.
During an announcement in Quebec, he insisted that if seasonal workers can't find employment in their regions, then EI will be there for them.
Tensions were high as Harper spoke in Rivière-du-Loup during a day of protests in the province over changes to the federal employment insurance program. Protesters were demonstrating outside Premier Tech, an agricultural and recycling business, where Harper appeared against a backdrop with the words "jobs", "growth" and "prosperity", and surrounded by employees in dark blue T-shirts.
The prime minister announced a repayable investment that would help shore up what he called the 200 good jobs at the plant.
For the first time, the prime minister appeared to be defending seasonal workers when he said: "There are many regions of the country where … a large part of the work is seasonal, people simply cannot get jobs all year round, they can't get jobs, or they can't get jobs in their area ….
"For people like that who have paid into the employment insurance system, we will make sure employment insurance is there for them."
Still, in a speech about connecting Canadians to available jobs through skills and training in Ottawa Thursday, Human Resources Minister Diane Finley praised the EI changes that force frequent collectors of EI travel as far as 100 kilometres for a job, and accept as much as 30 per cent less pay than their previous employment.
"That is why, in last year’s budget, we seized the opportunity to remove disincentives from employment insurance to ensure that it is structured in a way that people are encouraged to work and are rewarded for it," she said.
In an interview on CBC Radio's Maritime Noon, Finley defended the controversial home visits that EI investigators are conducting in the cases of 1,200 randomly selected EI recipients.
"Unfortunately some people may go on vacation, and we want to make sure that that's not happening," she said.
NDP Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair lambasted Finley again Thursday about her statement that the government does not have quotas for investigators who are pursuing EI fraudsters.
"Minister Finley persisted and said continuously that there were no quotas, despite the fact that we now know that there were. They can call them by any other name, but a quota is a quota is a quota, and a quota by any other name is a quota," Mulcair told reporters in the foyer of the House of Commons.
Finley, in her radio interview, denied that Service Canada sets quotas for its investigators.
"When you set quotas, that implies there are consequences for those people who don't … hit their quotas, and that is not the case," she said. "There are no bonuses or no punishment for frontline people in Service Canada or indeed the managers who are within the union if they don't hit those targets."
On Wednesday, thousands of people held protests in several eastern Quebec cities as a delegation of Quebec politicians travelled to Ottawa to protest employment reform. Since January, changes to Canada's employment insurance require people who are unemployed to travel up to 100 kilometres for work and take jobs below their skill level and usual pay.
Quebec Labour Minister Agnès Maltais returned from Ottawa empty-handed on Wednesday after meeting with Federal Human Resources Minister Diane Finley.
Maltais said she asked Finley for a suspension on the reform, but the federal minister stuck to the government line, saying the government would study the impacts of the reform and make changes if necessary.
"This is insane!" Maltais said. "I am sure there have been no studies on the impact of this reform."
Maltais says she tried to explain the impact on industries such as construction, agriculture, and tourism in Quebec.
"I question [Ottawa's] comprehension of the realities of Quebec's labour market," she said.