Tens of thousands of hard-working and law-abiding temporary foreign workers living in Canada were set to be deported starting this past April following the implementation of the “cumulative duration rule”, also known as the “4 in, 4 out” rule. The rule is arguably representative of the unfairness of Canada’s revolving-door system of worker exploitation, with TFWs deemed to be disposable workers.
This “4 in, 4 out” rule stipulates that foreigners working on temporary worker visas for four years, who have not acquired permanent resident status, must leave the country for four years before being allowed to return. The law has been on the table for quite some time, but it seems to have been ignored by the majority of those affected.
Yet their vulnerability to deportation is making thousands of TFWs deal with the difficult task of sorting out all their affairs and packing up their lives in a very short space of time. Families are being placed under a lot of stress. While foreign-born children are required to leave Canada along with their TFW parents, Canadian-born children of TFWs have Canadian citizenship and are allowed to stay, thereby putting the families in the difficult situation of having to live apart.
As the numbers of temporary labour migrants have grown over the last decade, the cumulative duration rule is the approach the federal government has adopted to limit immigration to Canada through temporary labour migration programs. The introduction of the rule comes following a period of lobbying from various groups who argue that TFW programs take away job opportunities from Canadians struggling to find work in a challenging economic environment. The Alberta Federation of Labour, for example believes that TFW programs provide “a cover for providing employers with a mechanism that keep wages low when economic conditions suggest that they should rise.
There are essentially two kinds of migrant workers arriving in Canada: long-term immigrants and temporary short-term residents. This distinction leads workers along separate paths and into different labour market segments, and eventually into a future as permanent residents and citizens as well as non-citizens.
For temporary residents who cannot transition to permanent residence, their path now requires them to leave Canada and return to their country of origin.
In addition to working holiday programs, temporary workers are admitted to Canada through the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP), the Live-in Caregivers Program (LICP), and the Temporary Foreign Workers Programme (TFWP).
Low-skilled workers arriving through the SAWP usually leave Canada within eight months, and as such are not affected by the 4 and 4 rule.
The LICP allows for the employment of foreign workers as domestic caregivers in exchange for a pathway to citizenship, though changes introduced in 2014 have made it more difficult to do so. However, LICP caregivers admitted prior to the 2014 changes are not subject to deportation under the 4 and 4 rule.
The TFWP accounts for the largest number of temporary workers and has become the centre of attention under new government policy.
Meant as a stop-gap, short-term solution to fill severe labour shortages so businesses could continue to grow and create more opportunities for Canadians, the TFWP has become the cause of widespread resentment among those who believe it causes economic hardship. This was brought to the forefront of public opinion when a major bank issued a public apology for hiring TFWs to permanently replace local employees, even though the TFWs were higher-skilled.
The number of TFWs has rocketed over the last decade, from about 100,000 TFWs in 2002 to about 338,000 in 2014. While a majority of TFWs in 2000 were high-skilled, by 2008 lower-skilled TFWs became the largest category. It is against this backdrop that the 4 and 4 rule was enacted.
However clarifications are in order. First the high cost of recruitment, travel, and other fees including $1000 in government fees associated with employing TFWs can lead to exploitative instances of debt bondage for TFWs who are made to work off these employment costs or ‘loans’ by their employers.
Second, many temporary foreign workers choose to work overseas, including Canada, to secure employment at much higher wages than is otherwise available in their own country. Indeed, foreign remittances account for a significant portion of family income for millions of workers working abroad from India and the Philippines, the world’s top source of low skilled migrant workers.
Third, the 4 and 4 rule applies mainly to low-skilled TFWs working in manufacturing, retail, and hospitality. The Canadian government has formally exempted a number of high-skilled TFWs employed in management and professional capacities, as well as their spouses and dependants.
The 4 and 4 rule gives rise to claims of an unjust and unequal treatment of temporary foreign workers based on class, skill, and qualifications. While higher-skilled migrants are often able to transition to permanent residence, the majority of TFWs in Canada who are low skilled, cannot. The 4 and 4 rule serves to reinforce an exploitative revolving door system that admits and then removes temporary workers seen as disposable. It is a difficult stigma that Canadian policymakers should acknowledge. At the very least, Canada must ensure the foreign workers coming here to work, fully understand their temporary status. This will ensure that those choosing Canada do so under mutually beneficial economic conditions.