Even with recent changes that streamline the process, international students continue to struggle with complex work regulations. Unlike domestic students who do not need extra paperwork to work on or off campus, international students have always had to take an extra step to obtain the same work opportunities.

As of June 1, international students with a full-time registration status and valid study permit looking for off-campus work do not need to apply for a work permit. Instead, they need a Social Insurance Number (SIN), the application for which can be completed at any Service Canada office. 

An international student who wants to work in Canada usually needs to fulfill three requirements before he or she can apply for a SIN. The student must be a full-time student, with a valid study permit, and enrolled in a program that will last for more than six months. Additionally, international students can only work up to a maximum of 20 hours per week during the school year and full-time during scheduled breaks, although they can extend these hours by simultaneously working an on-campus job. 

According to a statement on the Government of Canada website, the recent changes “reduce the potential for fraud or misuse of the program while protecting Canada’s international reputation for high-quality education and improving services to genuine students.”

“Struggle to secure meaningful work”

Andrew Langille, a Toronto-based labour lawyer focused on youth employment, said that the employment picture for many international students is dismal. “From regulatory issues, to discrimination to cultural differences, it can be quite a struggle to secure meaningful work.”

Langille said that international students are increasingly exploited for their labour. “Often, Canadian employers discriminate against people from other countries and people simply won’t be granted an interview. International students in Toronto are increasingly being forced to work ‘off-the books’ in the manufacturing industry in the northern part of the GTA without being granted the usual protections that employees receive,” he said.

Maiko Mitsuhashi, a third-year international student, said that the job application process is often difficult to navigate for international students. “I think many international students are repelled from jobs because they are not familiar with the Canadian job application process and often have not been exposed to part-time work in high school, as was the case with me,” she said.

Langille agreed that it was important for international students to familiarize themselves with the Canadian labour market and workplace practices before beginning a job search. 

Eros Grinzato, secretary of the newly founded International Students Association (iNSA), and Marine Lefebvre and Mary Githumbi, iNSA co-presidents, said,that apart from the Centre for International Experience (CIE), U of T does little to accommodate its 10,276 international students.  

“This is, in fact, why we founded the iNSA: to help fellow international students and provide them with the much-needed services to allow them to smoothly settle down in Canada”, they said in a joint statement. 

Althea Blackburn-Evans, U of T director of media relations, said that the rapid rise in international students over the years has increased the need for additional, specialized services for international students.  

Apart from the CIE, Blackburn-Evans cited a number of other services that the university provides for international students, including immigration and transition advice, intercultural and learning strategies support, UHIP, orientation programs, peer mentorship, English communication classes, income tax clinics, and social and networking events. 

Benefits of international experience

Hailey Wang, a Rotman Commerce student who is a Canadian citizen of Chinese origin, said that, despite her citizenship, many employers still see her as foreign. Wang said that this perception has proven to be both beneficial and disadvantageous for job prospects. 

Wang said that international experience is often perceived as beneficial in the increasingly globalized economic environment. “Although I’m not actually international, most of my work experience do[es] come from abroad, and since applications don’t necessarily ask you about your nationality, employers tend to assume where I’m from and make decisions based on those assumptions,” she said. 

On the other hand, Wang said, some applications are rejected because of confusion over work eligibility. “Applications will always ask you if you work here legally, but even if you did work here legally, your perceived international status sends off the impression that you’re going to leave, and because of that, they’re less likely to hire you,” she added.

For her part, Mitsuhashi said that her international experience enhanced her job prospects. “When the interviewer asks me to explain my background, I like to explain how my experiences living in different places have affected myself and my skills. I believe that this is one of the skills that set[s] me apart from other job applicants and is a great opportunity to highlight my strengths,” she said.  

Wang echoed Mitsuhashi’s sentiment, saying that her work experience and living experiences in different places made her appear more “cultured” to employers. 

Defining international

Lefebvre said that the group’s definition of an “international student” is broad and that lumping all international students into one category can be problematic. “We like to think of international as identifying with more than one place,” said Lefebvre, adding: “You might be a Canadian but have gone to a school in a different country. Or maybe you lived abroad and only came to Canada for university.” 

Grinzato echoed Lefebvre’s sentiment saying, “There are actually many students here who don’t pay international student fees but are still international. This could be because they have lived all their life outside Canada, schooled abroad, but have a parent who’s Canadian or holds a work visa. It’s a loosely defined concept.”