Some international students in Halifax say they are working for less than minimum wage in local restaurants and face other unfair work conditions, including employers that refuse to hand over tips.

Sushi making

International students in Halifax say some local restaurants are paying less than minimum wage and violating other workplace rules. (Shutterstock/Nipon Laicharoenchokchai)

A CBC News investigation has also learned at least one sushi restaurant is under investigation by the Department of Labour, after a former employee filed a complaint claiming he was not paid for time spent training.

It's difficult to know the extent of workplace infractions involving international students. Official complaints are confidential and student leaders say international students are often reluctant to come forward because they fear retribution and even deportation. In some cases, they don't know Canada's labour laws.

CBC News spoke with four international students from China who together have worked at a half-dozen businesses in the city over the last two years — most of them sushi restaurants.

 Amr ElKhashab

Amr ElKhashab, president of the Dalhousie International Students Association, says international students often don't understand they are protected by labour laws. (CBC)

Their stories include working for less than minimum wage, no pay for training and not receiving tip money from restaurant owners.

One of them is David, a 21-year-old Chinese student studying at Saint Mary's University, who worked in the kitchen of a local sushi restaurant.

"They told me at the beginning I would get $6.50 per hour and they told me it's because I'm an apprentice," he said.

The minimum wage in Nova Scotia is $10.60 per hour. The minimum wage for inexperienced workers is $10.10 per hour.

David is not his real name. CBC News is protecting his identity because he worries about retaliation and being told to leave the country before finishing his studies.

"If we complain about or report about an issue, maybe trouble will come to the store and ourselves," he said.

'People lose their jobs'

The Department of Labour is investigating another Halifax-area restaurant accused of not paying an employee for training. The restaurant owner tells CBC News the period in question was not formal training, but says he will pay the former employee if ordered.

CBC is not identifying the business because the investigation is not complete and the department has not said whether the accusation is well-founded.

Chen Xie

Chen Xie, a volunteer with the organization Speak Up, teaches students they can’t be deported for filing a labour complaint. (CBC )

International students facing unfair work conditions tend to "cave" and not file official complaints with the Department of Labour, says Amr ElKhashab, president of the Dalhousie International Students Association.

"They don't know they're protected by law," said ElKhashab.

Poor pay is one of the biggest issues, he says. In some cases, international students are paid for fewer hours than they actually work. In other cases, they are paid for the correct amount of hours, but it's in cash and below minimum wage.

Chen Xie, a volunteer with a Saint Mary's University-based organization called Speak Up, says he tries to teach students they can't be deported for filing a complaint. But jobs that don't require strong English skills are rare.

"They have friends who work in those restaurants and if you complain about restaurants, the restaurant gets shut down. People lose their jobs," Xie said.

Each complaint investigated

A spokeswoman with Nova Scotia's Department of Labour says the department is concerned about reports that some international students are being paid less than minimum wage.

Chrissy Matheson says any complaint made to government would be investigated. She says people who feel their workplace rights are being violated should call 1-800-315-0110.

The Dalhousie Student Union says it too is concerned about the issue, especially as tuition continues to rise and more students are forced to find part-time work to help pay their expenses.

"The student union is going to be trying to do some workshops this year around knowing your rights," said John Hutton, a vice-president of the student union.

"It is only through knowing your rights and standing up for them that we can actually make sure that people's well-being is protected."