In this week's federal budget, Finance Minister Bill Morneau provided more details on the government's previously-announced Global Skills Strategy, which is designed to attract top global talent to Canada.

But as the rules around foreign workers evolve, Canada risks leaving behind some potential citizens.

As part of Canada's evolving foreign labour strategy, late last year, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada announced that it was doing away with the four-year limit for temporary foreign workers in Canada.

While eliminating this rule provides much-needed flexibility for Canadian employers who face labour shortages, this change may actually hurt some temporary foreign workers in the long run.

When the four-year limit was initially brought in, the intention was to underscore the temporariness of the foreign worker program.

Under the rule, temporary foreign workers who work in Canada for four years are not eligible to become temporary foreign workers again unless they are out of Canada for four additional years — hence, the regulation became known as the "four-in, four-out" rule.

The thinking was that if a foreign national's ability to work in Canada was limited to only four years, he or she would know that this was only a temporary arrangement and would plan to return home to work.

The problem with doing away with the four-year limit is that it does not assist a temporary foreign worker becoming a Canadian citizen. Instead, doing away with this rule simply lengthens the time they can be here on temporary status. 

TFW

The federal government must provide a pathway to citizenship for all temporary foreign workers, whether high-skilled or low-skilled, immigration lawyer Reis Pagtakhan argues. (CBC)

Because temporary foreign workers are not Canadian permanent residents or citizens, there will eventually come a time when they will have to return to their home countries. After all, "temporary" foreign workers cannot, by definition, be here indefinitely.

If these individuals are now forced to return home after seven or eight years, as opposed to four years, it may be even harder for them to get back into the workforce in their native countries.

Under current immigration programs, most of the so-called "high-skilled" workers — executives, managers, professionals, tradespeople and others whose occupations require some post-secondary education — have pathways to Canadian citizenship.

In many cases, high-skilled temporary foreign workers who want to remain in Canada are able to obtain Canadian permanent residency within the first four years of being here. As a result, this rule change did not really affect these types of workers.

So, while eliminating the four-year limit provides a short-term solution for employers and foreign workers, the big question that now faces Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen is whether he will introduce a pathway to Canadian citizenship for so-called low-skilled temporary foreign workers — those who are clearly not part of Canada's Global Skills Strategy.

Oath

A man takes the Oath of Citizenship at a ceremony in Mississauga. High-skilled temporary foreign workers are often able to obtain Canadian permanent residency within the first four years of being here, but it's more difficult for so-called low-skilled workers, Reis Pagtakhan says. (Jonathan Castell/CBC)

For those workers, doing away with the four-year limit only allows them to be here a little longer. Without a pathway to Canadian citizenship, they will eventually have to go home.

Why will they eventually have to go home? In order to be a temporary foreign worker, a person must establish that he or she can carry out the job and will only be in Canada temporarily. Should a temporary foreign worker get sick or no longer be able to do the job — for example, because of old age — it is possible that a work permit would be refused.

In this scenario, Canada would then face the prospect of having to deport older and ill individuals back to their home countries because they can no longer do the work necessary under the temporary foreign worker program.

Is this what we want to do? Deport vulnerable people who have lived here, worked here, spent money here, paid taxes here and built relationships here? Is this how we repay individuals who help our Canadian businesses grow?

No easy path to permanent residency

If the government is serious about lifting the four-year time cap on temporary foreign workers, then it must provide a pathway for all of these individuals to become Canadian citizens.

While there is no easy way for so-called low-skilled workers to become permanent residents under federal immigration programs, under provincial and territorial nominee programs, certain low-skilled temporary foreign workers can become permanent residents. 

The question that exists is whether this patchwork system should remain. Why should a low-skilled worker in Winnipeg have a pathway to Canadian citizenship while a low skilled worker 200 kilometres away in Kenora, Ont. does not?

The federal government must provide some sort of pathway to citizenship for all temporary foreign workers.

While it may be necessary to place stricter criteria on low-skilled temporary foreign workers to ensure Canadians get jobs first, if the federal government will not provide a pathway to citizenship for these workers, it should do the honest thing and bring back the four-year time limit.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.