The federal government plans to tighten up the temporary foreign workers program with new legislation that would require businesses to hire employees from abroad as a “last resort.”

In a reversal of some controversial reforms to the program, the government said it will temporarily suspend the “accelerated labour market opinion” process that allowed some companies to fast-track the hiring of workers from abroad.

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney also announced that employers will no longer have flexibility to set the wages for foreign workers.

Current rules allow businesses to pay foreign employees up to 15 per cent below the prevailing wage for certain types of jobs, as long as Canadian workers doing the same job in the same geographic region were earning the same.

The 15-per-cent rule was introduced last year, but Kenney said it was confusing to many people and only about five per cent of employers used it.

Ottawa also wants to charge employers a new fee for labour market opinions and increase the existing fees for foreigners’ work permits.

Under the new rules, English and French will be the only languages that can be used as a job requirement.

The changes will not apply to seasonal programs that bring in agricultural workers from countries like Mexico, Jamaica and Nicaragua, Kenney said.

“Quite frankly, Canadians are not willing to…go work in agricultural jobs,” he told CTV’s Power Play.

As CTV News reported Sunday, the proposed changes would require employers to demonstrate a "clear and valiant" effort had been made to find Canadian workers to fill the jobs, before looking overseas for employees.

And in order to get approval to hire temporary foreign workers, employers would have to provide a plan for eventually replacing those foreign workers with Canadians employees.

The program currently allows companies to hire foreign workers when Canadians citizens and permanent residents are "not available for the job."

But critics have complained the program is often used simply to find foreign employees willing to work for a much lower wage.

Kenney told reporters Monday that the government intends to “put more financial pressure on employers to look for Canadian workers first.”

He said businesses already prefer to hire Canadians because it costs them “thousands of dollars more” to look for foreign labour. 

But Kenney said he’s concerned about reports from some businesses, especially those in the service industry, who say that foreign workers are more productive and reliable, willing to work late and pick up extra hours.

Nevertheless, Canadians should always get the “first crack” at available jobs, he said.

But some business owners say the stricter rules on hiring foreign workers will bring down productivity and profits.

Brad Mason, president of Winnipeg-based Derksen Mechanical Services, told CTV News that his company can’t find enough welders, pipefitters or engineers in Canada, so the only option is to hire abroad.

“Without temporary foreign workers…we can’t continue to grow as a company,” he said.

NDP’s immigration critic Jinny Sims said the Conservatives’ reversal on some of the existing rules show that the government is “listening to Canadians” who have been critical of the way foreign workers are being hired and compensated.

However, she said the proposed legislation is just “a quick fix” and it’s time to take a “serious, serious” look at the issue.

The foreign workers program came under the spotlight recently after it emerged that the Royal Bank of Canada was letting 45 employees go. At least one of those employees said she was asked to train her replacement, who was coming to Toronto to learn the job before returning overseas.

RBC had contracted the positions out through the company iGate, which specializes in training and recruiting offshore labour.

RBC president and CEO Gord Nixon later issued an apology, saying the bank's management was "reviewing our supplier arrangements and policies with a continued focus on Canadian jobs and prosperity, balancing our desire to be both a successful business and a leading corporate citizen."

He said all 45 employees were being offered jobs elsewhere in the company, but said RBC had followed proper procedures and was "compliant with the regulations."

Jason Trussell, iGate's senior vice president and regional head of iGate Canada, also told The Canadian Press that "iGate's hiring practices are in full compliance with all Canadian laws."

With a report by CTV's Richard Madan in Ottawa and files from The Canadian Press