Employment Minister Jason Kenney is defending the federal government's changes to the temporary foreign worker program, noting that the "top-to-bottom" overhaul will force businesses to use market mechanisms, like raising wages, to address labour shortages.

Kenney said that while the proposed changes to the program will undoubtedly make it more difficult for some businesses in tight labour markets to fill job vacancies, employers must try harder to hire Canadians first.

"No doubt about it, there are a lot of good employers who are struggling to fill jobs in (Alberta) and they're not going to be in favour of these changes. But our response to them is just to encourage them to use market mechanisms to deal with labour shortages: higher wages, more active recruitment, more investments in training," he told CTV's Question Period in an interview that aired on Sunday.

The federal government announced the new changes last week, nearly two months after Kenney imposed a freeze on foreign workers in the food services industry. The freeze came after allegations that some McDonald's franchises were bringing in too many low-paid labourers under the temporary foreign worker program.

The new changes include a limit to the number of TFWs that large and medium-sized companies would be allowed to employ, stronger penalties for companies found to be violating the new rules, and on-site audits and inspections to make sure employers are not abusing the program.

According to government figures, there are about 336,000 temporary foreign workers in the country, which is an increase from 100,000 in 2002.

Several business groups and politicians have criticized the program changes, including the three candidates running to be the next premier of Alberta.

The Canadian Federation of Independent Businesses said the changes were the most "small-business-unfriendly" move ever made by the government, and Alberta PC leadership candidate Jim Prentice said the "one-size fits all" plan won't work for his province.

Kenney rejected these criticisms, noting that some businesses have wrongly relied on the program as a permanent business model, when it was only supposed to be a "last, limited and temporary resort."

"We have over 1,100 businesses, primarily but not only in Alberta, where over half of their work force is coming in as temporary foreign workers from abroad. That is not acceptable," Kenney said.

"What we're saying today is you can still, on a very limited basis, have temporary access to this program as a bridge. But you cannot build your business model around it."

He also said that an over-reliance on the program has led to distortions in the labour market. He gave the example of the Alberta food services industry, which relies heavily on temporary foreign workers. In that industry, the wages have risen only half as much as the rate of inflation and one-third as much as overall wages, he said.

"That's a distortion. It's unacceptable. That will end with these reforms," Kenney said. He gave the example of several European cities with tight labour markets where fast-food companies have increased wages as high as $25 an hour to address labour shortages.

The minister also rejected criticisms from the NDP that the changes don’t go far enough, noting that the Conservatives have created an "extremely robust" reform package.

He also noted that the government has "massively" increased pathways to citizenship and permanent residency for higher-skilled TFWs, like research academics and skilled tradespeople.

Last year, 45,000 high-skilled TFWs received permanent residency in Canada, Kenney said.