OTTAWA, April 29 (Reuters) - The Canadian government was set to announce tighter rules on Monday to prevent employers from using its temporary foreign worker program to squeeze Canadians out of jobs, acting after two high-profile cases tarnished the program's reputation.
Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney and Human Resources Minister Diane Finley have scheduled a news conference for Monday afternoon to announce reforms to the program, which the Conservative government was expected to present to Parliament in its budget implementation bill on Monday afternoon.
"While Canada is experiencing significant skills shortages in many sectors and regions, this government believes that Canadians must always have first crack at job opportunities when they become available," said Stephen Lecce, spokesman for Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
"The government is moving quickly and taking action to reform the temporary foreign worker program to ensure that Canadians are given the first chance at available jobs."
Despite 7 percent unemployment nationally, in some areas and in some professions there are labor shortages, and Canadian employers are allowed to bring in foreign workers if the employers can demonstrate that they cannot find Canadians to do the work.
The program was designed mainly to bring in cheap agricultural workers but it has expanded rapidly to fill shortages elsewhere, both high-skilled positions in the booming resource sector and low-skilled jobs such as servers at the country's ubiquitous Tim Hortons coffee shops.
The program exploded into the news this month with word that Canada's largest bank, Royal Bank of Canada, was using temporary foreign workers hired by U.S. outsourcing firm iGate , effectively to replace existing staff.
In an open letter, RBC Chief Executive Gord Nixon subsequently apologized for not being more sensitive to Canadian employees. But he also said the bank had complied with regulations, and iGate said its hiring practices were fully compliant with Canadian law.
The program also came under the spotlight with word last year that a majority Chinese-owned company had listed Mandarin as a language requirement for 201 jobs at the Murray River coal mine in the interior of British Columbia.
The company involved is HD Mining International Ltd, in which China's Huiyong Holdings Ltd holds a 55 percent stake, Canada's Dehua Lvliang International Mines Group Inc 40 percent and an unnamed party 5 percent.
HD Mining said last year it had tried to hire locally but had been unable to find people with the skills to operate the specialized mining equipment, currently used in China, that will be used at the Canadian mine.
The United Steelworkers union has challenged the idea that HD Mining could not find Canadian workers, and said it was too dangerous for miners who do not understand English well to operate in a mine that requires compliance with extensive English-language safety regulations.
A Canadian official said one change to the program would require employers to advance a plan for transition to Canadian employees before permission would be granted to bring in foreign workers.
This would include plans for recruiting, training and keeping Canadian workers.