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International Students say New Government Policies are Pushing Them to Work Illegally

With new visa regulations coming into effect, immigrant students are looking into the world of under the table jobs

by Lynette George
A hand reaches out under the table, handing over cash to another hand.
International students are turning towards under the table job as visa policies change. (OTR/Lynette George)

Recent policy changes will increase the pressure on international students to pursue illegal cash jobs, students and experts are warning.

Apart from cutting the number of international students admitted to Ontario universities this year, the new rules include a doubling of the minimum proof of funds required to enter Canada to more than $20,000 and a return to the 20-hour work week for international students that takes effect in May. Future undergraduate and college students will also face additional financial hardship because their spouses will no longer be eligible for automatic open work permits upon arrival. 

“It is quite possible that these policies are going to push students into more vulnerable positions and worse work,” said Dale McCartney, an assistant professor at the University of the Fraser Valley who studies international student policy, labour markets and migration issues. 

“There’s a tremendous amount of risk involved here. Lots of these jobs are dangerous. They’re not well-regulated. Also, cash jobs entangle students in a position where it’s very difficult for them to get help,” McCartney added. 

“If they were to go to Workers’ Compensation for being injured at work, but the job was an illicit job, they risk their immigration status.”

Ryan, an international student from India attending Algoma University in Brampton, said he took a job at a pizza shop in Scarborough, Ont., six months ago.

During the semester, he said he worked nine hours per day, for six days a week as a delivery driver and was paid $9 an hour, an additional $1.50 per drop-off and tips, all in cash. When his course load became lighter towards the end of the semester, he said he started working 16 hours a day, five days a week. 

The number of hours international students can legally work off-campus per week shifted from 20 to 40 on Nov. 15, 2022. This change, billed as a temporary solution to Canada’s labour shortages, was scheduled to end on Dec. 31, 2023. However, it has been extended till Apr. 30.

Ryan said he took on the job even though he knew that working for cash could put his immigration status in Canada at risk.

“Money was the most essential thing at the time,” he said, over the phone. “I didn’t have a job and I needed to pay for my rent, groceries, phone bills and pay off my car insurance.”

McCartney said students are forced to take risks due to financial pressures, even when the consequences are serious. 

“In addition to working cash jobs to pay day-to-day bills, some international students also pay remittances, and almost all international students are under some pressure from home for sure.”

With the new policies, McCartney suggested that an increased pressure will fall on students who planned to rely on spousal support, forcing them to take larger loans to cover their expenses instead.

He also warned that the number of hours international students are allowed to work and the detailed record-keeping required from employers could further hurt their employment prospects. 

“What makes this even more complicated is the looming possibility that their work hours will be cut, which will mean employers will find (international students) even less appealing,” said McCartney.

Ethan, an international student from Colombia pursuing a biotechnology degree at Centennial College, said he came to Canada on a visitor visa after his parents passed away.

To afford a study permit, his education and the rising cost of living in the city, he worked under the table, below-minimum-wage jobs. 

“I needed to work because I need money for my college tuition…and if I get paid in cash, then I don’t need to pay taxes, so I can save more money to live here,” he added. Like the other students OTR interviewed for this story, he asked not to be identified because he didn’t want to put his immigration status at risk.

At one of his first jobs, Ethan said he was asked to clean a machine with acid. He wasn’t given protective gear and at one point, acid fell on his legs and splashed into his eye, partially blinding him for a few days. His employer not only refused to pay his wages that day but also refused to compensate him for his loss of earnings during his recovery.

Worried that his immigration status would be in jeopardy if he complained about it, Ethan said he chose to remain silent.

“Nobody is sure if [the employer] will pay you or not because cash jobs are illegal, right. If there is an accident or something, you’re the one to blame.”

Sarom Rho, an organizer at the Migrant Workers’ Alliance for Change, said that international students often have no idea of their labour rights. 

“All workers have labor rights and protections regardless of their immigration status. But international students are not able to even enforce the rights that they do have because they don’t have the power to do so…the employers have much more power.”

A support document published by the Workers’ Action Centre in 2019 stated, “If you are working without a valid SIN number or work permit, or you do not have any status, you still have rights under basic labour laws.”

This includes being protected by employment standards and health and safety regulations, as well as having access to financial compensation from the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board after an injury. 

A spokesperson from the WAC also clarified that when a complaint is filed by a student or migrant employee working illegally, the Ministry of Labour does not contact the federal government or the Canadian Revenue Agency to reveal their status. 

They warned, however, that nothing prevents employers from blowing the whistle. 

McCartney said universities need to do more to make international students aware of their labour rights. 

“International students…have these additional challenges and universities are one of the very few places where they know to go for help,” he said. “But how many universities or colleges are really talking to students about these issues?”

Wendy, an international student from the United States, said she had been having trouble finding work when she was offered an hourly wage of $13, which is below Ontario’s minimum wage, to wait tables at a local restaurant. She went to her friends for advice and in the end decided not to take the job. 

“I was not aware of the risks and I also don’t have any experience with these cash jobs. So I was really not sure, besides what other people have been telling me,” Wendy said in a telephone interview. 

Compared to their Canadian counterparts, international students face additional barriers in the job market according to John Shields, a professor at Toronto Metropolitan University who specializes in the political policies surrounding labour markets.

“Often employers prefer to hire people with so-called Canadian work experience. [International students] may have accents. Their credentials may not be recognized in the same kind of way,” Shields said. 

While recent labour shortages may have created more opportunities, Shields said, “those jobs are often minimum wage, students end up working a lot of hours and even then, they may not have enough hours in the regular forms of employment to afford their cost of living.”

In some cases, students are just giving up. After eight months in Canada, Ryan has decided to return to India after finding the financial hardships and professional instability insurmountable.

“There is no future for international students [in the country]…People invest a lot of money to come here to better their future and then they’re stuck working restaurant jobs for their whole life…There’s no atmosphere for studying here. Students are pressured to find jobs to afford living here and everyone only talks about getting shifts and earning money.”

Lynette George is a third-year journalism student at Toronto Metropolitan University. She enjoys writing about art, culture and social justice, with a specific focus on telling South Asian stories.

This article may have been created with the use of AI software such as Google Docs, Grammarly, and/or Otter.ai for transcription.

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