With Canada set to reimpose cap on working hours, international students worry about paying for tuition, living expenses
Canada is set to reimpose the cap on the number of hours that international students can work off-campus. But with heightened cost-of-living concerns in Canada, many international students say they're not sure how they'll be able to afford their tuition and living expenses if they can't work full-time.
In November 2022, the federal government launched a pilot project that removed the cap on the number of off-campus hours international students can work.
The pilot project was a temporary measure designed to address labour shortages in the Canadian economy and is set to expire on Dec. 31, 2023, which means international students will once again be limited to working 20 hours per week starting next year.
CTVNews.ca asked international students working full-time hours how they plan to pay for their tuition and living expenses while working fewer hours. The emailed responses have not been independently verified.
Ottawa resident Omar Fetouh, who is currently studying architectural engineering at Carleton University, has been balancing schoolwork while working full-time hours in construction --- an industry that's facing a severe shortage of skilled labour. But with the impending end of the pilot project, he says he's not sure how he'll support himself.
"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," he told CTVNews.ca in an email.
"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."
FROM CUTTING BACK TO CASH JOBS
Some students, such as Gangandeep Singh Saluja of Scarborough in Toronto's east end, say they'll have to rely on additional financial support from family.
"It will be very difficult after 31 December to manage my living expenses. I will have to ask my parents or family for financial support. I live in Scarborough and my rent is $675 per month. I feel like if I work only 20 hours per week I will only be able to pay my rent," Saluja told CTVNews.ca in an email.
"I have a partner with me as well. So both of us are trying to get by, you know. I will rely on more support probably from my partner but of course my partner would need to look for double or triple jobs to make ends meet," said Joanna Quindoza, another international student who lives in Scarborough, told CTVNews.ca over the phone on Tuesday.
International student tuition is often substantially higher than the fees that domestic students pay. According to Statistics Canada, domestic undergraduate students pay on average $7,076 in yearly tuition. For international undergraduate students, it's $38,081 on average, with some schools and programs charging upwards of $60,000.
Many students also told CTVNews.ca they'll have to come up with ways to significantly cut back on their expenses, whether it's finding cheaper groceries, moving into less expensive housing, or taking fewer courses.
"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 added.
"I need to find cheaper accommodation that I can afford and also need to buy my daily groceries which are also costly in Canada," Emmanuel Masango of Kamloops, B.C. told CTVNews.ca in an email. "Probably the only way to manage is to take less courses at a time so that I can balance out my finances and education."
Some students also told CTVNews.ca they worry the return of the 20-hour cap will compel more students to work under-the-table cash jobs, which often pay below minimum wage with exploitative working conditions.
"(With) 20 hours, we can only get basic labour 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," Ankit Amatya, a postgraduate student in Brampton, Ont., told CTVNews.ca in an email.
International students working under-the-table was one of the findings of a Senate report released in September, which concluded that Canada's international student program faced "integrity challenges" stemming from "high tuition fees and abuse."
"(The 20-hour cap) is meant to help international students have an additional means to support themselves financially while also keeping them focused on their studies. In reality, however, international students work under the table so they can exceed the 20-hour limit," the report stated.
On top of that, some students told CTVNews.ca their employers will not let them work part-time, forcing them to find a new job once the 20-hour cap kicks in.
"I am currently working in retail, with a full-time supervisory post right now. So if we are going back to (the) 20-hour limit, I would have to give up my post," Sheryl Sabay of Red Deer, Alta. said in an email to CTVNews.ca
"I currently work as a security guard and my employer will not allow me to work fewer hours. I would have to find a new job in order to survive," Saluja said.
CALLS FOR THE 20-HOUR CAP TO BE LIFTED PERMANETLY
The overwhelming majority of the international students who reached out to CTVNews.ca say they want to see the federal government permanently lift the 20-hour cap.
"I would like to express my strong support for the permanent lifting of the 20-hour work cap for international students," Fetouh said. "The current temporary policy allowing full-time work has been instrumental in enabling students like me to gain valuable experience in our fields, contribute to the Canadian workforce, and support ourselves financially."
Some student groups, such as the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations, are also calling for a permanent end to the 20-hour cap.
"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 maintaining a decent life in Canada with the high cost of living," Wasiimah Joomun, executive director of the group, told CTVNews.ca in a statement on Friday.
"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," Joomun added.
But not everyone thinks it's a good idea. The September Senate report criticized the federal government's pilot project and said the 20-hour cap is necessary to keep international 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," the report stated.
"Some forego their studies altogether to work full-time upon entry to Canada, using a study permit application as a decoy for their primary objective," the authors added.
When asked whether the government had any plans to extend the pilot project or make it permanent, a spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) didn't give a definitive answer, but said the department is "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," the spokesperson told CTVNews.ca in an email statement on Tuesday.
In late October, Immigration Minister Marc Miller announced he's looking into ways to make Canada's immigration system better "aligned" with the country's labour needs, and brought up employers relying on international students working full-time hours as an example of one of the "competing policy priorities" that his government is dealing with.
"Whether it's big-box shops or others looking for cheap labour 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 labour gap that we face in this country," he said during an Oct. 31 press conference.
Quindoza says she's still hoping to see a last-minute extension to the pilot project.
"It's really difficult. I honestly don't know the plan yet, but we're still hoping that, you know, there might be a last-minute change or announcement," she said.