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The number of temporary foreign workers admitted from January to June rose nearly 5 per cent compared to the same period in 2012, and nearly 20 per cent over 2011, according to the most recent figures available from Citizenship and Immigration Canada.JASON FRANSON/The Globe and Mail

Canada ramped up its admissions of temporary foreign workers through the first half of this year even as the government was promising to clamp down to ensure Canadians get first crack at available jobs.

The number of temporary foreign workers admitted from January to June rose nearly 5 per cent compared to the same period in 2012 and nearly 20 per cent over 2011, according to preliminary estimates from Citizenship and Immigration Canada. Slightly more than 125,000 temporary foreign workers entered Canada through the end of June, compared to 119,000 in 2012 and 100,000 to 105,000 from 2008 to 2011, a period affected by the 2008 recession.

Stories of temporary workers being hired ahead of unemployed Canadians or being trained to replace Canadians caused a furor last March and the government promised to change its Temporary Foreign Workers program.

"Canadians have to get first crack at jobs. In those cases earlier this year where we saw they weren't getting first crack, there was, rightly, an outcry from the public and action from our government," Citizenship and Immigration Minister Chris Alexander said on Monday.

One of his first tasks as minister, he said, was to tackle some of the program's faults. The government now requires, among other things, that employers pay a $275 application fee and that only ability in English or French can be cited as a language requirement. Employers are also no longer permitted to pay temporary workers less than their Canadian counterparts.

Mr. Alexander did not say whether he expects the number of temporary foreign workers will continue to rise. The program is intended to address acute situations on a short-term basis.

"Those reforms only kicked in in July. So I'm not going to predict where we'll be on temporary foreign workers by the end of 2013, but almost certainly in a different place. We still need them in certain circumstances, but only after we have exhausted the potential of the Canadian labour market and exhausted the potential of our economic immigration programs," Mr. Alexander said.

Some of the increase in the first half of the year could be from employers rushing to get new workers in before the reforms.

The minister announced on Monday that Canada aims to welcome 240,000 to 265,000 new permanent residents in 2014, as it has for several years. Canada has not targets for temporary workers.

Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, called the increase in temporary foreign workers "deeply troubling."

"It looks like the number of temporary foreign workers being brought into the country spiked at exactly the same time more and more Canadians were voicing concerns about the program and at the same time members of the Harper government were reassuring Canadians the program was going to be brought under control," Mr. McGowan said.

"Clearly, the Harper government is saying one thing and doing another. On the one hand they're reassuring working Canadians that the labour market won't be flooded with temporary workers, while on the other hand it looks like they're allowing employers to do just that."

The tight labour market in some parts of the country, particularly Alberta and Saskatchewan, is often cited as the reason temporary labour is needed. Mr. McGowan said evidence shows Canada does not have an acute labour shortage or skills crisis.

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