Canada’s work cap reinstatement worries international students amid rising costs

The pilot project, launched in November 2022, was a temporary measure aimed at addressing labor shortages in the Canadian economy.

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Canada’s decision to reinstate the cap on the number of hours international students can work off-campus is causing significant concern among these students. The cap, previously lifted as part of a pilot project to alleviate labor shortages, is set to be reimposed, limiting students to 20 work hours per week.

This change arrives amid escalating cost-of-living issues, posing substantial challenges for international students in affording their tuition and living expenses.

The pilot project, launched in November 2022, was a temporary measure aimed at addressing labor shortages in the Canadian economy. As it approaches its end on December 31, 2023, international students, who were able to work full-time under this policy, are now facing financial uncertainties.

Students like Omar Fetouh, studying architectural engineering at Carleton University, and Gangandeep Singh Saluja from Scarborough, express concerns about managing their expenses with reduced work hours.

“I have been fortunate enough to secure a position in my field of study, thanks to the temporary policy allowing me to work full-time. This has not only provided me with valuable professional experience but has also allowed me to contribute to the construction industry.

“Without the ability to work full-time in my field, I find myself in a precarious financial situation, which not only hinders my academic pursuits but also diminishes my ability to contribute meaningfully to the Canadian economy,” he said.

International students typically face much higher tuition fees compared to domestic students. According to Statistics Canada, the average tuition for domestic undergraduate students is around $7,076 annually, whereas international students pay an average of $38,081, with some programs charging over $60,000.

This significant disparity, combined with the reinstatement of the work-hour cap, forces many international students to reconsider their financial strategies, often relying on additional family support, reducing living expenses, or even reducing their course load.

Some students, like Emmanuel Masango from Kamloops, B.C., plan to find cheap accommodations and cut back on other expenses. However, this situation could lead to undesirable outcomes, including compelling students to seek under-the-table cash jobs, often characterized by exploitative conditions and below-minimum wages. Ankit Amatya, a postgraduate student in Brampton, Ontario, highlights the risk of exploitation in such jobs.

“It’s so difficult because we need to cut some expenses when it comes to food or things like that. We’ll probably need to focus more on the needs this time, like the things that we really need,” Quindoza pointed out.

“I need to find cheaper accommodation that I can afford and also need to buy my daily groceries which are also costly in Canada.

“Probably the only way to manage is to take less courses at a time so that I can balance out my finances and education,” Kamloops said.

“(With) 20 hours, we can only get basic labor jobs, though we have good degrees and skillset. Some are also compelled to work cash jobs where employee rights and safety policies are non-existent, they basically exploit you for $9 to $10, from what I have heard,” Amatya said.

The Senate report released in September acknowledges these issues, indicating that the 20-hour cap might compel students to work illegally, undermining the integrity of Canada’s international student program. The report criticizes the federal government’s pilot project, arguing that the cap is necessary to keep students focused on their studies.

“As earnest as IRCC’s intentions may be, this policy runs the risk of further undermining the international student program given the probability that some international students will use this as an opportunity to relegate their studies to an afterthought.

“Some forgo their studies altogether to work full-time upon entry to Canada, using a study permit application as a decoy for their primary objective,” the report stated.

However, this view doesn’t consider the financial realities these students face, especially in a high-cost living environment.

The majority of international students, as well as student groups like the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations, advocate for the permanent lifting of the 20-hour cap. They argue that this would ensure fair treatment in the workplace and enable students to sustain themselves financially. Yet, the government’s stance remains uncertain.

“With 20 hours a week, a student making the lowest minimum wage of $14 ends up earning approximately $1,120 per month, which is not sustainable to maintain a decent life in Canada with the high cost of living.

“Permanently removing the limit for off-campus working hours for international students would ensure that international students are not only treated fairly in their workplaces but are also able to make a decent living to sustain themselves as they pursue their studies,” Wasiimah Joomun, executive director of the group, told CTVNews in a statement.

When queried about the possibility of extending the pilot project or making it a permanent fixture, a representative from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) did not provide a conclusive response. Instead, he said the department “is in the process of assessing the impact that this public policy has had, including how many eligible international students have taken advantage of the temporary public policy.

“Any new developments would be communicated publicly.”

While Immigration Minister Marc Miller acknowledges the need to align Canada’s immigration system with its labor needs, there’s no definitive answer on whether the pilot project will be extended or made permanent.

“Whether it’s big-box shops or others looking for cheap labor and wanting to make sure that they maintain a 40-hour work week for some of the students, that’s a competing policy with the labor gap that we face in this country,” he said during a press conference on Oct. 31.

The reinstatement of the work-hour cap for international students in Canada presents a complex dilemma. On one hand, it aims to ensure that students focus on their studies. On the other hand, it poses significant financial challenges for these students, potentially pushing them towards exploitative work conditions. This situation calls for a balanced approach that considers both the educational objectives of international students and their financial realities in a high-cost living environment.

The Canadian government’s decision on this matter will have far-reaching implications for the international student community and the broader Canadian economy.

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