Working long hours. Earning meagre wages. Fainting from exhaustion. What some international students face in Canada
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Each year, thousands of international students come to Canada. Despite the fact that many are from modest backgrounds, they pay hefty tuition fees for the chance not just to study in this country but, potentially, to start a life here. Yet the realities of their decision can stand in stark contrast to the dream. They face difficult challenges, unforgiving timelines and social isolation, and are often prone to exploitation by employers and others. In a new series, Hard Lessons, we look at whether Canada is living up to its bargain with these students.
After being let go from her part-time job at Walmart, Satinder Kaur Grewal says she felt lucky to be hired at a local restaurant in June 2020, working as server, cook, cleaner and cashier. She needed money for food and rent, and many other international students had lost their jobs during the pandemic.
The deal, according to a complaint she filed with the Ministry of Labour, was that she would be paid $60 a day by the Brampton restaurant regardless of the hours she worked. After six weeks, she got a raise to $80 for a 10-hour day, $100 for 12 hours and $116 for 14 hours, but the hourly rate would still be much lower than Ontario’s legal minimum wage, which was $14 at the time.
Grewal said she would start at 9 or 10 a.m. and sometimes worked until midnight, without a day off. Twice, she said, she fainted from exhaustion — once in the washroom and another time behind the counter — during her six months at the job.
“I got home from work and slept on my bed. I did nothing else. Just sleep, shower and work. No cooking. No cleaning. My body was dead. I wasn’t able to do anything else,” said the 22-year-old Brampton woman, who came to Canada in 2018 and graduated from CDI College in December 2020 with a diploma in web design.
“I called my family in India many times. I told them, ‘I can’t survive like this here.’ And my family said this is a stage of life and just to tolerate it a bit longer and the future will be better.”
Sarom Rho of Migrant Students United said international students have become the largest group of temporary migrant workers in Canada, with 778,560 holders of study permits and postgraduate work permit in 2021 alone.
Many of them are stocking shelves in grocery stores, handling packages at warehouses, cleaning buildings, working in food service and making deliveries.
International students pay three to four times the tuition fees of their domestic peers and contribute $22 billion a year to the Canadian economy. With tuition fees skyrocketing across Canada, Rho said Ottawa should at least remove the 20-hour work limit for international students, to ease the risk of employers taking advantage of them.
“This is a cash grab, where people are called to show up with the promise of permanent residency. And when they come here, they find that it’s a landmine filled with exploitation and abuse and really a lack of dignity,” said Rho. “So many workers will say that this has been such a humiliating experience. The way to reclaim that dignity is to come together and organize to fight for the necessary changes to the rules that cause these conditions in the first place.”
By the time Grewal quit her job at Chat Hut on Christmas Day in 2020, she said she had worked a total of 1,844 hours. Based on the legal minimum wage, she should have earned a total of $32,782.82 in regular pay plus overtime, public holiday and vacation pay. However, she was paid only $14,356.40.
The Star contacted Chat Hut’s owners, who declined to comment on Grewal’s complaint when reached by phone or to respond to the Star’s email request about the allegations.
In Chat Hut’s response to the provincial government’s employment standards officer in charge of the case, the employer said Grewal worked 1,704.50 hours, including 576.75 hours of overtime.
The restaurant said Grewal “consistently confirmed that she wanted to work the hours she did work” and she was given time off whenever she required a break, according to the Labour Ministry’s reasons for its decision dated Feb. 10, 2022.
In February, Chat Hut agreed to pay Grewal $16,495.29.
Grewal’s experience might not have come to light if not for an Instagram post she came across last year about the launch of Naujawan Support Network, a group to help international students and workers facing workplace exploitation.
She reached out to the organizers, who assisted her in trying to recoup her owed wages and filing a complaint against the employer with the Ontario Labour Ministry.
Naujawan, a Brampton-based advocacy group, was formed in 2021 initially to support farmers’ protests in India, but organizers began to shift their focus after hearing from participating international students and workers about incidents of alleged exploitation by employers in their own backyard.
“When students and workers know that they need permanent residence, they are at the mercy of their employers. Not only do many not know about their rights, but those rights are often actively denied to them,” said Simran Dhunna, of Naujawan.
“There are obviously a whole range of barriers that are related to not knowing about your rights, about the language, and about being new to the country. The biggest, most critical factor that makes international students vulnerable is their immigration status.”
Dhunna said many international students are forced to work for cash only and under minimum wage because of restrictive immigration rules. These rules stipulate that students may work no more than 20 hours off-campus during school, and limit access to permanent residence with stringent criteria and timelines.
“The employer could simply be like, well, ‘You’re working (extra hours) illegally, so if you actually work for $8 an hour, we won’t report you and we’ll give you an employment reference letter for your (permanent residence),’” she explained, speaking generally about the concerns she sees.
“So all sorts of rights from the minimum wage, overtime, vacation pay, employment reference letters for (permanent residence) and just basic respect and dignity are denied to international students because of this.”
Grewal, whose father is a bus driver, said her parents helped cover her tuition — more than $23,000 over two years — but she had to make money for other necessities.
While she expected to work hard in Canada to support herself, she didn’t anticipate it being this hard.
“When I was in India, when our relatives came to visit from Canada, they are showing their clothes and pictures in their mobile phones of their cars, the fancy restaurants and malls and everything. So we thought like, oh, it’s so easy there,” Grewal said.
“When I came here and found out my auntie was working as a cleaner at a hotel, I was shocked. I was like, ‘You guys showed me all these pictures but you never told me you were a cleaner.’ People back home only see our lifestyle. They don’t see our struggles.”
Grewal said she knew about Ontario’s minimum wage but realized the stakes would have been even higher for her if she didn’t have a job, given her precarious status.
“It’s like there’s a noose around our necks, whether we work or whether we don’t work. There’s no financial support,” she said. “I needed money and I didn’t have money to hire a lawyer to help me.”
Naujawan Support Network worked with Grewal and helped her draft a letter to Chat Hut’s owners in November to urge them to return the owed wages. Instead, her former employer threatened to take legal action against her, they alleged.
Chat Hut said its lawyer only sent a letter to Naujawan Support Network to ask them to stop “harassing” the owner after they were “vexatiously” calling the restaurant and the owners as well as other employees and people linked to the company.
“None of the employer’s actions form reprisal,” said the ministry’s reason of decision, citing Chat Hut’s position.
“The Company did not intend to intimidate, dismiss or otherwise penalize or threaten to intimidate, dismiss or otherwise penalize the employee. The employer took the claimant’s representative’s actions as harassment and intended for that harassment to stop. However, it was willing to listen to the claimant.”
Despite an order against Chat Hut to pay back Grewal’s owed wages, the ministry sided with the employer in denying the complainant’s claim of reprisal.
Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based reporter covering immigration for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung