The government has been acting on problems with the temporary foreign worker program for more than a year, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Tuesday in response to opposition accusations the government was hiding information and denying that it wasn't working properly.

The accusations arose during several feisty exchanges in question period between the government and the NDP over the temporary foreign worker program following a CBC story about a memo for Human Resources Minister Diane Finley on the controversial program.

CBC News reported on Monday that Finley was warned last year that employers were hiring temporary foreign workers in the same jobs and same locations as Canadians who were filing employment insurance claims. One example cited in the memo showed the number of temporary foreign workers who were allowed to work as food counter attendants and the number of people who claimed employment insurance who cited experience in that sector in the same province.

The briefing note prepared by Finley's deputy minister last May was obtained by CBC's Power & Politics under the Access to Information Law.

In the House of Commons on Tuesday, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair accused Harper of denying that there were any problems with the temporary foreign worker program until changes to it were announced last week.

"Exactly the contrary is true. The government indicated for some time that it would be reforming the temporary foreign worker program," said Harper, adding that measures were already introduced to better match job vacancies with people on employment insurance.

"We've been very clear we need to do a better job of matching the demand for EI and the demand for temporary foreign workers, that's precisely what the government has been doing for a year and a half while, by the way, the NDP's been writing us demanding more temporary foreign workers for their ridings," Harper said.

The temporary foreign worker program has been the subject of much controversy lately on Parliament Hill. Last month, CBC reported that dozens of employees at RBC were losing their jobs to temporary foreign workers.

Earlier this year, two labour unions took Huiyong Holdings Group to court, after the mining company hired more than 200 temporary foreign workers from China for its coal mine in northeastern B.C.

Mulcair accuses government of hiding information

Mulcair asked whether Finley has been hiding information from Harper or if Harper has been hiding information from Canadians about how the temporary foreign worker program was being used.

"The minister brought in changes last year to make sure that people who are on EI, employment insurance, get first crack at jobs rather than temporary foreign workers, but guess what? Guess who opposed that? The NDP opposed it," Harper responded.

Finley and Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney defended the government's actions on reforming both the employment insurance and temporary foreign worker programs.

"We recognized this problem a year ago and in fact before that and we've been talking about it publicly since and in fact that's exactly why we introduced changes to the employment insurance and temporary foreign worker programs," said Finley.

Employers are more aware of qualified unemployed people and those seeking work are more aware of employers who are seeking to fill vacancies, she said.

Kenney said the information in the memo was being cited in speeches and interviews a year ago and that it's the NDP that is behind on the issue, not the government.

"Why did it take the NDP a year to catch up with reality?" he said.

New study on labour market

The debate on Parliament Hill came as a new report suggested Tuesday that the increasingly controversial system "could be distorting" the natural supply and demand of the country's labour market.

The University of Calgary study suggests Canada isn't facing a wide-scale labour shortage but rather is experiencing a "serious mismatch" between the skills of its labour force and the demands of the labour market.

Kevin McQuillan — lead author of the study titled "All the workers we need: debunking Canada's labour shortage fallacy" — said improving the balance in the labour marketplace does not require an increase in the labour supply.

"Indeed, the TFWP (temporary foreign worker program) is sometimes being used to fill jobs with foreign workers in regions that already suffer from relatively high unemployment rates," wrote McQuillan.

"Temporary foreign workers could be distorting the labour market forces that would bring together more Canadian workers and jobs."

McQuillan suggested an improved immigration policy — that could adjust intake levels with labour market needs and reduce the number of temporary foreign workers brought in — as part of the solution.

"The country is not likely to benefit from a growing class of low-paid, temporary residents," he wrote. "Canada needs to make more effective use of its homegrown human resources."

Education could address labour needs, report says

In 2012, some 213,516 people entered Canada via the temporary foreign worker program, more than three times the number admitted a decade ago.

The private sector brought in 25 per cent more foreign labourers last year than the number of economic immigrants accepted by the government, which has long insisted caps on its own programs are necessary so as not to flood the Canadian labour market.

McQuillan's report conceded there are worker shortages in specific industries and certain regions, but he argued that young Canadians need to be encouraged to pursue an education and careers in fields where jobs are available.

He said this could be done through government funding into educational institutions with programs that match labour market needs and tuition pricing that charges more for study in a field where there is already an excess of labour.

He also suggested the government should find ways — such as a tax break — to entice Canadian workers to move from high-unemployment regions to provinces where workers are needed.

Statistics Canada's labour market survey placed the unemployment rate at 7.2 per cent in March.

Proposals come amidst overhaul

Tuesday's report refocused attention on the temporary foreign worker program, which the Conservative government was recently forced to admit is due for an overhaul after weeks of public outcry over the scarcity of Canadian jobs.

Under the proposed changes, employers will no longer have flexibility to set the wages for foreign labour, putting an end to a rule that allowed businesses to pay foreign workers up to 15 per cent below median wages, if that's what they were paying Canadians.

The Conservatives also called for a temporary freeze to a program that fast-tracked the ability of some companies to bring in workers from outside Canada through what's known as an accelerated labour market opinion.

The two key changes are part of a larger overhaul of the program that also includes stricter rules for applications, new fees for employers who apply and a promise of stricter enforcement.

With files from the Canadian Press