The auditor general should be called in to probe the Temporary Foreign Workers Program, the Liberals said Monday, days after the Conservative government suspended the food-service sector from the program over reports of abuse.

Employment Minister Jason Kenney announced last Thursday that the restaurant industry will be unable to access the program pending an investigation by his department.

The issue came up quickly during question period in the House of Commons on Monday as MPs returned to work after a two-week Easter break.

Liberal MP Ralph Goodale said problems with the program extend beyond the food-service sector, and asked the government to go beyond an internal investigation by calling in the auditor general.

“We know there are problems, as well, in banking and mining and other industries, too,” Goodale said.

“Over a year ago … Liberals warned about this. To save the program, we asked for full review to get rid of the abuses. The government voted no and the trouble got worse. The department cannot investigate itself. Isn’t it time for the auditor general to get on this file?”

Kenney replied that the auditor general “is free to investigate whatever he deems appropriate without direction from the government,” and said the government responds when it receives reports of abuse.

“In terms of the program, of course, if and when there are abuses we act clearly and quickly,” Kenney told the House. “If we see any distortion of the labour market we are going to address that.”

Kenney noted that reforms were introduced to the program last year, which led to a significant drop in applications. He will unveil further changes in the coming weeks “to ensure Canadians always and everywhere get the first crack at available jobs and that the program is only used as a limited and last resort by employers.”

Kenney suspended the restaurant industry’s access to the program after reports emerged that suggested some companies were paying foreign workers lower wages or were knowingly making fewer jobs available to Canadians.

McDonald’s Canada, one of the companies at the heart of the latest allegations, voluntarily halted its involvement in the program last week while it conducts its own internal audit. The company has also hired a third-party auditor to probe the allegations.

Adding to the controversy, a report released last week by the C.D. Howe Institute concluded that the program was fuelling unemployment in Alberta and British Columbia.

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair asked when Kenney first learned of potential problems.

Kenney said his department receives complaints “from time to time” and “whenever we hear those, we demand an immediate investigation.”

Investigators have been given “additional powers” to seize documents and inspect work sites, he said, and food-service companies will remain barred from the program until the probe is complete.

The restaurant industry says its suspension from the program could lead to some businesses closing their doors. Last week, Kenney called that potential turn of events “regrettable,” but said it was necessary for him to send a message to employers that they must boost their efforts to hire Canadians, and improve wages and working conditions for all of their employees.

The government doesn’t want to shut down the program entirely, Kenney told CTV’s Question Period on Sunday, because it would affect employers who use it responsibly.

“We want a balance. Obviously, we don't want to create a situation that would bar visiting university professors from coming to Canada (or) people with specialized skills," he said.

He also noted that hundreds of thousands of Canadians work in reciprocal employment programs in countries around the world, and dismantling the foreign workers program outright could affect those programs.

"We need to realize we're part of a global economy. Canadians benefit from being able to work abroad," he said.

"We don't want to shut all of that down. What we need is a balance. We need to mend this program, not end it."