Starting November 15, international students across Canada will be able to work unlimited hours off campus. Previously, study permit holders were only allowed to work 20 hours per week off campus during the academic year. According to the Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Sean Fraser, this policy change is intended to address Canada’s ongoing labour shortage.
The new policy only applies to full-time international students who either have active study permits or submitted their study permit applications before October 8. The new policy will be in effect until December 31, 2023.
In interviews with The Varsity, U of T international students said that the new policy will allow both employees and managers more flexibility in terms of scheduling, and enable international students to obtain more work experience and income. However, they are disappointed with the timing, impermanence, and exclusionary criteria of the policy.
International students have been campaigning to remove the 20-hour work limit since at least 2019, when international student Jobandeep Singh Sandhu — then a mechanical engineering student at Canadore College in Mississauga — was arrested and deported after working for more than 20 hours off campus.
“[The policy change] is a step in the right direction,” said Sarom Rho — the lead organizer of Migrant Students United, a branch of the advocacy organization Migrant Workers Alliance for Change — in an interview with The Varsity. The change, Rho explained, “was in direct response to years of current and former international students directly organizing to end restrictions on work.”
However, she and U of T international student leaders maintain that the policy change is not enough to ensure the fair treatment of international students in Canada.
On October 7, Fraser announced that the federal government would be removing the 20-hour work limit for international students, which would allow more than 500,000 international students currently in Canada to work more hours off campus.
International students enrolled in designated postsecondary programs can continue to work unlimited hours on campus and outside the academic year.
The removal of the 20-hour work limit is “about giving international students the power, freedom, and flexibility to make their own decisions about when and where, and how to work,” said Rho.
Vanness Yeung is a third-year UTSC international student from Hong Kong. Previously, the work limit prevented her from working more hours during reading weeks and holidays. “I was just staying at home, when I could’ve worked more and earned more money for my daily expenses,” she said in an interview with The Varsity.
With the new policy, Yeung said that international students will be able to choose to work more hours during reading weeks, holidays, and semester breaks, and to afford to work fewer hours during midterms or finals season to “focus on our studies.”
Alistair Kirk — a fourth-year UTM international student from Ghana and vice-president external of the University of Toronto Mississauga Students’ Union — also said that the new policy will allow international students to gain more work experience during their undergraduate studies. “International students need to get [work] experience in order to land a job after they graduate,” he said in an interview with The Varsity.
Many international students work while enrolled in university in order to offset the costs of their high tuition fees, rent, and daily expenses. “There is a misconception that all international students are wealthy,” said Kirk. “We come from countries with differing economic conditions.” According to Bloomberg, the Ghanaian cedi is the world’s worst-performing currency in 2022 amid continued depreciation.
At U of T, international students pay almost 10 times the amount domestic students pay for tuition fees. “The tuition fee is already expensive. I don’t want my parents or my family to pay for my daily expenses also, if I can support myself,” said Yeung.
International student statistics
In March, The Varsity published a three-part investigation regarding U of T’s high tuition fees placing international students in debt and distress.
Each year, international students contribute almost $22 billion to the Canadian economy through expenses and tuition, including an estimated $5.1 billion directly to postsecondary institutions and $3.7 billion in tax revenue, according to reports from Statistics Canada and the federal government. An investigation published by The Walrus found that international students’ fees are “propping up” Canada’s higher education system.
At U of T, more than 27,000 international students collectively contribute almost $1.4 billion in tuition. International tuition fees remain U of T’s largest source of revenue, comprising 43 per cent of the university’s operating revenue in 2022–2023.
Addressing the labour shortage
In September, Statistics Canada reported that businesses were struggling to fill an “all-time high” of vacant job positions across the country. The reported shortage consisted of almost one million vacancies.
“By allowing international students to work more while they study, we can help ease pressing needs in many sectors across the country,” Fraser wrote in a press release.
Katie Ma, a second-year UTSC domestic student and a previous manager at a bubble tea shop, said in an interview with The Varsity that she supports the change. She explained that she believes hiring international students is an asset to her company. “We have a lot of international customers,” she said of her workplace. “Therefore, it’s nice to have international students [on staff] who are able to speak various languages.” Ma has prioritized hiring people who could speak Chinese, Cantonese, or English so that her team could better communicate with the shop’s customer base.
Previously, the 20-hour work limit constrained Ma’s ability to schedule international students for shifts. She had several supervisors who were international students — who were “great” at doing required tasks and supervising new employees — but who couldn’t always be present because of the 20-hour work limit.
“When they were not able to work, I had to be [at the store]. That created a lot of struggles for me because I’m also a student,” said Ma. With the new policy, she said that scheduling can be easier for managers.
Rho, however, said that the situation in Canada is not a labour shortage crisis as Fraser suggested but “a crisis of low wages and poor working conditions.”
“Measures like removing the 20-hour work limit increases the power of migrant students to be able to protect themselves against exploitation,” she said. “Migrant students are working past 20 hours already, just without rights… Bad employers are known to use the threat of deportation to steal wages from workers after forcing them to work over 20 hours.”
Disappointment from the community
“It’s so disappointing that it was done now when they needed us and saw us as a way to fill the labour shortage in the economy,” said Kirk. “We’re only being used when it suits the interest of the government.”
Michael Sobowale — a fifth-year international student from Nigeria and president of the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union — pointed out that the federal government’s emergency government grants in 2020 excluded international students. Instead, the government temporarily removed the 20-hour work limit for international students working in essential services at the time.
“There is a pattern of behaviour within the Canadian system in which international students are [being] used to fill economic gaps,” Sobowale said in an interview with The Varsity.
Moreover, students and activists say that the policy change being temporary is problematic. “It’s not enough, because the change is only temporary until 2023,” said Rho. Ma, Kirk, and Sobowale also want the policy to be made permanent.
Sobowale also said that it is unfair that the new policy excludes international students who applied for their study permits on or after October 8.
Rho concurred, “A system where some people have more rights, and some people don’t, is going to further entrench a tiered system, which will allow employers… to exploit those who have less power to speak up.”
“We are going to continue to take action until all of us win the changes we deserve,” said Rho.