Four years ago today began Canada’s 4-in-4-out rule. 

It came into effect on April Fool’s Day in 2011, mandating that temporary foreign workers who have been in Canada for four years or more must leave the country in four years’ time. This brings us to today, which presumably saw the first wave of workers leave Canada for their former homes, unable to return until 2019.

As with any rule, there are exceptions. But the big picture is that advocacy groups estimate that 4-in-4-out could mean up to 70,000 low-skilled migrant workers will be forced to leave their jobs, lives and home of the past four years in 2015.

It’s hardly sudden, given the structured four-year lead time. But in practice, something as arbitrary as swiping from March to April on the calendar today meant uprooted lives, uncertainty, heartbreak and fear for thousands who have overnight become unwelcome houseguests. Audrey Macklin, a professor of law at the University of Toronto, put it this way: “On March 31, temporary foreign workers will go to bed as lawfully employed, hard-working, tax-paying residents of Canada, and wake up the next day as illegal immigrants.”

The number for how many woke up to such a nightmare is unclear. To me, just like the point of the rule.

Supposedly it’s to actually support temporary foreign workers, by sending them back home and thus giving them the chance to apply for permanent residency. Given that many of these workers are low-skilled however – and were specifically hired for low-skilled jobs – such a possibility seems highly unlikely. At least, not to the tune of 70,000 new Canadians.

Looking back to 2011, I tried to find how the rule was announced. I instead found a list of the federal government’s achievements for the same year. These included the subheadings ‘support hard-working families,’ ‘eliminate the deficit’ and ‘support jobs and growth.’

The 4-in-4-out rule didn’t fall under any of them – least of all because it can hardly be rationalized as an achievement. Also because, well, it’s a rule that sort of contradicts the first three lists. 

The problem, I guess, is that these workers aren’t Canadian. Not on paper, anyway. Which apparently makes it okay to just disregard everything else.

Like how most temporary foreign workers are by nature extremely hard-working. They’ve travelled across the world for a low-skilled job in a foreign country. And generally not for themselves: they support families abroad, and work to give their next generation an education, or a stronger start. They contribute to the Canadian economy as workers, residents and consumers. Not only that, but they work hard at jobs many Canadians wouldn’t take for minimal pay.

Their work in theory benefits all of us, whether we’re the employer or the indirect beneficiary of added tax dollars at work. The economy is run on low-skilled, unglamorous jobs too, and yes, somebody has to be willing to fill them for an unglamorous rate to sustain the way things are (ethics aside). There are also the contributions outside of work – the contributions to neighbourhoods and communities made by people who build second lives here through engagement and relationships.

So while the government trumpeted all it did for “hard-working families” and for the Canadian economy, it also passed a law to ultimately send tens of thousands of hard-working, family-oriented (former) Canadian residents away.

Regardless of whether it’s a good law, bad law, one that’s warranted or a rule that’s unashamedly hypocritical, it’s certainly fooling no one: whatever this rule is about, it certainly isn’t about the interests of temporary foreign workers. Nor, apparently, those of Canadians. 


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