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Protecting labor rights means status for all, international students say

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Temperatures are dropping, leaves are changing and, now that pandemic restrictions have largely been lifted, universities are bustling with students. As the school year starts to pick up momentum, many international students who are seeking to enter the workplace are facing the reality of an exploitative immigration system.

According to Statistics Canada, tuition for international students in Canada is approximately $30,000 more than tuition for domestic students. While wrestling with steep prices, students in Canada on a study permit are restricted to working only 20 hours a week off campus while class is in session.

International students are treated like cash cows by universities, according to Sarom Rho, an organizer with Migrant Students United (MSU). MSU is a part of the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, a workers rights organization with a membership of migrants in farm work, care work and low wage work. Rho said the labor of current and former international students, refugees, and undocumented people often fall into the low wage category.

“For current international students, what we’re seeing here is a complete cash grab that’s targeting racialized, poor and working class families around the world,” Rho said in an interview with “We’re mostly coming from the Global South. There is a bait and switch system where people are called to show up under the promise of getting permanent residency, but end up walking through a minefield of labor abuse, immense stress and exploitation.”

Restrictions on study permits and high tuition leads international students into illegal work, Rho said. She explained that for those who work off-campus, 20 hours of work is not enough to pay the tens of thousands of dollars in tuition.

Work restrictions leave international students with few options

“There are nearly 800,000 current and former international students in the country and many are facing exploitation at work, lack of support at school, increasing tuition fees, and restrictions on their permits,” Rho said.

For on-campus jobs, hour restrictions do not exist, according to the Government of Canada’s website. This removes the competitive disadvantages for international students, according to Jordan Hartshorn, who works for the International Student and Study Abroad Center at the University of Saskatchewan.

Even though on campus job opportunities remove barriers, not all international students will be able to find employment on campus. At the University of Regina, there are more than 3,000 international students enrolled, according to an email sent to Of those 3,000, the University employs 301 international students on-campus. This figure does not include their three federated colleges: Campion College, First Nations University of Canada and Luther College.

Beyond the University of Regina, most post-secondary institutions do not track how many international students are employed on-campus. However, Hartshorn said there is a disadvantage for international students as they job hunt.

“International students often lack Canadian job experience which can hinder them during a job search,” said Hartshorn. “We encourage international students to explore volunteer opportunities on campus with university service units, student associations and other organizations.”

Emilio Rodriguez, a refugee and migrants rights policy analyst for the organization Citizens for Public Justice, came to Canada as an international student in 2016. Rodriguez said that the process of trying to obtain permanent residency while being an international student worker was stressful.

At the mercy of IRCC

“It was challenging in many respects,” Rodriguez said, “because you come here with your skills, your thirst for knowledge, thirst for experience and desire to contribute to this country. There are several barriers that are put in place. From access to scholarships, to access to internships to job opportunities, there are very strict barriers that limit migrant student workers from accessing those opportunities.”

Rodriguez said that he was in Canada for more than five years before he was granted permanent residency. He said that for the international student program that is a short time frame. In those five years, Rodriguez said that while between contracts, he could not access services such as healthcare. While reflecting on his experience, Rodriguez described himself as being “at the mercy of the IRCC.”

High cost-of-living and hour restrictions for study permit holders created a heavy financial burden for Rodriguez.

“I was overburdened,” he explained. “Like every last bit of money that I was able to make I was going towards tuition and living expenses”

Minister of Immigration, Sean Fraser tabled a new strategy to expand pathways to permanent residency on September 20. For international students, the document says that Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) is “assessing the trade-offs between reducing administrative requirements on co -op and work-integrated learning with any potential integrity risks that could arise.”

Another measure IRCC is taking is testing measures that give international students more time in Canada to continue to gain work experience.

“Temporary foreign workers and international students play an important role in Canada’s economy and that is why the Government aims to enable greater pathways to permanent residency,” the strategy reads. “Foreign workers help address the immediate workforce needs of different employers, provide a wide range of skill levels and education backgrounds, and support business development, innovation and productivity.”

Although the role of foreign workers has been acknowledged, the current tabled strategy does not meet the calls for status for all that have been put out by activists across the country. These calls have been revived after more than 5,000 people mobilized in 13 municipalities in Canada on September 18. This mass mobilization was in support of the Migrant’s Rights Network’s call for status for all.

Rho, who was at the rally in Toronto, said that full and permanent status for all migrants will ensure that everyone has access to the same rights. She said that protections for migrant student workers will not be expansive enough until they are given permanent residency.

“I think the conversation has largely been about the intentions of migrants,” said Rho from MSU. “People ask, ‘Do they want to stay in the country?’ But permanent residency isn’t just about the ability to stay in the country. Permanent Residency is fundamentally about rights. It is the only existing mechanism in Canada for people to access rights such as basic employment rights. Speaking up against bad employers without reprisal or accessing health care can’t be done without permanent residency. So I think that’s where the focus needs to be.”

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