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Prime Minister Stephen Harper chairs a roundtable meeting at Normampac cardboard plant in Victoriaville, Que., Jan. 6, 2011, where he spoke about Canada's ongoing economic action plan.

Graham Hughes/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The federal government will push companies to rely less on temporary foreign workers in a bid to open up jobs for unemployed Canadians.

The new rules, announced in the 2013 budget Thursday, are one part of a larger plan to drive down unemployment by connecting job seekers with companies that need workers.

"Canada continues to experience major labour and skill shortages in many regions, and Canadians who are seeking jobs should always be first in line for these opportunities," the budget reads.

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The temporary foreign worker program allows companies to hire people from other countries and bring them to Canada to work for short stints. These include everyone from seasonal agriculture workers – often brought from developing countries to fill low-paying jobs – to nannies to service industry workers and white-collar professionals.

In theory, the program is meant to provide labour when employers can't find Canadians to fill temporary jobs. In practice, however, some companies heavily on these workers, bringing them back year after year.

Now, the federal government says, it will tighten up the rules to make companies hire Canadians first before looking across international borders.

Employers, for instance, will have to advertise open jobs longer and in more places within Canada.

They will also be restricted from requiring that workers speak foreign languages, in order to give a fair shot to English and French-speaking Canadian natives.

And the government says it will even help companies that rely on temporary foreign workers to find Canadians to hire. This process could take several forms: the government could, for instance, link job-seekers who have come to the government's other programs with positions that have been previously filled by foreigners.

The government will also look to save money on the program by making companies pay fees to cover the processing of labour market opinions, part of the administrative process for hiring temporary foreign workers, the budget said.

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The foreign worker program has come in for criticism over the years, often seen as a route for companies to find low-cost labour rather than to plug temporary shortages of workers.

The reforms are a first step towards the government's larger aim of solving one of the country's most pressing problems: jobs that remain unfilled by Canadians, even as many workers remain unemployed.

The federal government plans to tackle part of the problem by retraining workers. Some training might be necessary to move Canadians into jobs now held by temporary foreign workers. In other cases, however, such as with unskilled positions, Canadian workers might not even have to be trained to take on these jobs.

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