EXPLOITED IN THE WORKPLACE: THE ‘CANADIAN DREAM’ TURNS INTO A NIGHTMARE FOR INTERNATIONAL STUDENTS

It was a momentous day for 28-year-old Albin Augustine when he first set foot on Canadian soil in August 2023. From the suburbs of Mumbai in India, he had travelled 12,480 kilometres and paid about $26,000 in tuition and airline tickets for the opportunity of a better life in Canada. 

“I wanted a better work-life balance. I left my career in India to start afresh in Canada for better job opportunities. I wanted to experience the Canadian dream,” Augustine said. 

Having worked more than five years in user experience design, Augustine enrolled in a course at Toronto’s Humber College to enhance his skills. But he also needed a job to pay for his living expenses, so he started searching for roles in the same field. 

“After a while, I was willing to do any kind of job. Toronto is too expensive,” Augustine said. 

Days turned into months. Augustine was desperate and without a job, until one day, a pizza shop in Etobicoke called him for work. 

“I met with the owner, and he offered me work at the shop, making and serving pizzas. He said I would have to do unpaid training for the first 10 days, then he would pay me in cash based on my performance,” Augustine said. 

To Augustine, his Sunday mass prayers at church had been answered. 

“I was excited. After six months I had finally gotten work,” he said. 

The 10 days of training at the pizza shop were a mix of night and morning shifts, each spanning more than eight hours. 

Augustine would start at the shop at 9 p.m., return home at 7 a.m. and then leave for his morning classes. 

“I didn’t sleep for more than five hours, if at all,” he said. 

On the 11th day, when Augustine reached the pizza shop, the owner told him to leave. 

“There is no business. Consider yesterday as your last day. We can’t employ you,” Augustine recalled his employer’s words. 

He had worked nearly 120 hours in 10 days for nothing. 

The IJF spoke to nine current and former international students who told tales of being shortchanged and denied their rightful wages. Most were reluctant to be identified or to provide specific details about their employers for fear of repercussions, though one is pursuing a complaint with the provincial labour department.

Patricia Quan also had a troubling experience with a restaurant when she was studying at the University of Waterloo in 2018 as an international student from China.

Quan was asked to sign a contract to work as a server for a $7 per hour wage, even though the minimum wage at the time was $14. 

“The restaurant owner told me it was completely legal because, with the tips, it would reach $14. If I didn’t earn enough tips to reach $14, it was because I wasn’t working hard enough. I usually received around $11 or $12 per hour, never $14,” she said. 

“I didn’t even know there was a set minimum pay. I thought it was just a recommended wage, and it was completely legal for them not to meet it.”

In Ontario, the Employment Standards Act (ESA) entitles servers to the same minimum wage as other employees. Under the ESA, tips and gratuities are not considered part of the minimum wage and cannot be used to fulfill the legal requirement. 

Quan was paid in cash and not provided pay stubs. 

Augustine and Quan’s stories are not unique. International students are particularly susceptible to exploitation because of their high tuition fees, said Mary Gellatly, a lawyer at Parkdale Community Legal Services in Toronto.

“Students have to pay such astronomical fees. They are forced to work,” Gellatly said. 

Before 2014, international students were limited to working on campus, where they faced racism and decent-paying jobs were scarce, she said. 

“This forced students to seek off-campus work illegally, leaving them highly vulnerable to exploitation,” Gellatly said. 

“After international students began organizing and advocating, the rules changed to allow 20 hours of off-campus work. While this was an improvement, it still pushed students into precarious, low-wage jobs due to their school schedules. They continue to face exploitation like underpayment, long hours and unfair deductions.”

Gellatly said enforcement of minimum employment standards in Ontario is inadequate. 

“One reason is that workers themselves are responsible for enforcing their rights, with no protection from being fired. People have been pushed out of their jobs because there’s no protection to enforce their rights,” she said. 

Gellatly said filing claims is also a complicated online process, creating barriers for those without computer access. 

“Then [international students] have to make legal arguments about the violations they face. They have to make their case and let the employment standards officer make a decision,” she said.

In a written statement to the IJF, an Ontario Ministry of Labour, Immigration, Training and Skills Development. spokesperson, Manuel Alas-Sevillano, said the ministry has more than 500 inspectors who investigate workplace complaints. 

“Under the Act, employers cannot penalize workers who obey the law or exercise their rights,” Alas-Sevillano said. 

The recurrent problem of wage theft is one of the principal concerns of various migrant rights organizations, like the Naujawan Support Network (NSN). The network is a collective of international students and immigrant workers in the greater Toronto area. 

An NSN member, Simran Dhunna, said the organization has recovered more than $769,000 in unpaid wages from employers since its inception in June 2021, through direct actions, protests and social media boycotts of employers.  

Bikram Kullewalia, a senior member of NSN, said the group had an employer pay up to $45,000 worth of stolen wages for a chef working in a confectionery. 

“Initially, we used to get individual cases, but now we get cases of multiple employees from one place,” Kullewalia said. 

In September 2023, the NSN supported workers of Live Freely Foods (LFF), an industrial bakery in Mississauga, to recover their unpaid wages after the owner filed for bankruptcy. 

Kullewalia said LFF owed its workers between $2,500 and $10,000 each in unpaid wages. 

Without prior notice to the employees, the owners posted a bankruptcy notice on the company’s front doors on Aug. 30, 2023. 

An LFF employee, Satveer Kaur, said she worked at the bakery for nearly two years. 

She said after a year, her wages had begun to be delayed. “We would go on strikes, ask for our pay, but the owner wouldn’t budge,” Kaur said. 

Another LFF worker, Khushpreet Kaur, said she worked at the place for nearly 11 months. She said when they started the protest, some workers did not join out of fear of deportation. 

“Initially, the owner brought his lawyer and said we could file a complaint with the labour board if we wanted, but he wouldn’t pay,” Khushpreet said. 

After a month-long protest outside the bakery and a social media boycott targeting LFF’s owners, the employees received nearly 95 per cent of their owed wages in September, Kullewalia said. 

A spokesperson for LFF, Ghalib Bajwa, said everything had been cordially settled between the employees and the company. 

“They were hardworking people and things were settled in good faith,” he said. 

York University professor and immigration and refugee issues expert Tania Das Gupta said employers often exploit familial relations and long complaint processing times. 

She said employers also count on students’ hesitancy to complain owing to lack of knowledge, fear of deportation and intention to settle. International students have to be strategic in their actions due to the ineffectiveness of the enforcement system and their plight cannot be simplified as a “choice” to come to Canada, she said. 

“Students must rely on direct action, as government processes take too long and don’t make sense for them. It’s more complicated than just choosing to exploit themselves — we must understand the systemic pressures that lead to these choices,” Das Gupta said. 

Mary Gellatly said employers create the perception that working in cash is illegal, so workers think they don’t have rights. 

“It’s perfectly legal to be paid in cash. The requirement for the employer, however, is that they provide a pay stub outlining the hours worked and the pay per hour,” Gellatly said. 

Assistant Professor Vincent Wong at the University of Windsor’s Faculty of Law looks at international student exploitation through the lens of racial capitalism. In his yet-to-be-published PhD thesis, Wong writes that racism and capitalism have historically reinforced each other. His thesis states that the development of capitalism is also intertwined with colonialism and the exploitation of racialized labour. 

“Exorbitant tuition fees from international students have become a lucrative source of income for post-secondary institutions, especially with public funding cuts,” Wong said in an interview. 

He said labour exploitation is caused by students’ desperation to secure work to pay for tuition costs and to survive. 

“To attract them, the government uses the promise of permanent residency as a carrot, altering programs like the Canadian Experience Class to require Canadian study and work experience. 

“This creates a precarious status for international students, who are desperate to finish their studies, work and gain experience for their immigration application,” he said. 

He said students are constantly aware that they could be deported for failing to pay tuition or speaking out against their employers. 

“Wealth is extracted through discriminatory fees, labour is exploited due to precarious status, and the threat of expulsion maintains control over this vulnerable population,” Wong said. 

A migrant and community organizer at the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, Sarom Rho, along with her team are mobilizing students, care workers and migrant workers to call for full and permanent residency status for all temporary workers. 

Rho shared the story of a former international student who ended up becoming an undocumented resident of Canada owing to “discriminatory policies against international students.” 

“One of our members came to Canada to study, and his parents had taken out massive educational loans, which is very common for many international students. He was studying while working at a gas station for $10 an hour, below minimum wage. He knew his rights, but he didn’t have the power to enforce them without permanent resident status. 

“Unfortunately, his employer promised to sponsor him for permanent residency but didn’t follow through, leaving him undocumented,” she said. 

Rho said international students are going to classes and work hungry, stressed and wondering how they’ll pay for next month’s rent. 

“Instead of offering support, we’re witnessing a rise in racism and xenophobia, which serves to blame the victims and distract us from those truly responsible,” she said. 

Rho said that many members submitted Ministry of Labour claims and received orders to pay from employers. However, investigations often take years to complete. 

“Employers have more resources to make their case, while migrants are intimidated, threatened with deportation, and don’t have the money to hire lawyers or go through the lengthy application process. Many don’t have access to proof of bad working conditions, like pay stubs,” she said. 

In a written statement to the IJF, IRCC’s media spokesperson Remi Lariviere said that there has been a rapid increase in international students coming to Canada unprepared for the cost of living and without the support needed to “succeed”. 

“International students who arrive in Canada without adequate support are often at risk for exploitation. Their financial vulnerability can lead to challenging living conditions, a lack of funds for food and other necessities, and mistreatment in the workplace,” Lariviere said.

Rafael Gomez, an employment relations professor at the University of Toronto, said the Canadian government’s approach has conflated immigration with temporary foreign work and student visas. He said this has created a “mess” that prioritizes employer interests over workers’ rights. 

Like Rho, Gomez said permanent residency is essential for effective enforcement of labour rights. 

“Workers need agency, autonomy, and the ability to exit bad working situations. Temporary foreign workers and students on visas can’t exit without the risk of deportation. That’s why permanent residency is essential,” Gomez said. 

He said the pathway to permanent residency for international students in Canada and other temporary foreign workers should be quickened. 

“It’s better for the labour market, efficiency and equity, allowing workers to determine their labour rights,” he said. 

IRCC plans to implement changes announced in April with revision in policies aimed at international students including a cap on international students intake and an increase in minimum financial requirements for new study permit applicants. 

“In proposing this change, we examined the needs of students, policies in other countries, as well as research that has shown academic outcomes suffer the more a student works while studying. International students are here to focus on their studies and not to work full time,” Lariviere said. 

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