Chinese students in Winnipeg overcharged for rooms

A former University of Winnipeg recruitment agent charged foreign students as much as $3,000 a month for a small room and a meagre food allowance in his home.

A former University of Winnipeg recruitment agent has been charging foreign students as much as $3,000 a month for a small room and a meagre food allowance in his home, according to students.

Four high school students from China were recruited to attend the University of Winnipeg Collegiate, a high school that is part of the University of Winnipeg, starting in 2008.

The students lived in the Winnipeg home of Ronald Chong, who at the time was a paid recruiter of international students.

Chong's recruitment contract was cancelled earlier this year, after the university became aware of the students' living conditions.

One of the students, Herbert Tsang, left Hong Kong to study at the University of Winnipeg Collegiate in 2008. He said Chong, a family friend, arranged room and board for him.

Tsang said the food provided by Chong was meagre — "What you get [for] breakfast is a piece of toast, a piece of bread with some jam on it. And sometimes maybe a week for, like, one or two times, you get cereal," he said.

'I can't leave his place'

For dinner, Tsang said he got a small bowl of vegetables and a bowl of rice, and sometimes meat and soup if he was lucky.

Herbert Tsang, who has been studying in Winnipeg since 2008, says he was provided with a small room and meagre meals at Chong's house. (CBC)

Tsang said until his 18th birthday, he was not allowed to leave the house outside of school hours without accompaniment.

"He said I should be under his control and I can't leave his place," he said.

The students said they were charged $2,500 and $3,000 a month, which sometimes included guardianship and tutoring fees.

Under the university's own homestay program, people offering room and board in their home are paid $650 per month per student.

University officials told CBC News that Chong should not have been putting students in his home.

As a recruitment agent, Chong was only entitled to a 15 per cent fee from the $11,000 international student tuition charge. He recruited three students last fall.

Possible misrepresentation

"In this instance, it seems that there may have been some misrepresentation there," said Jeremy Read, senior executive officer and adviser to university president Lloyd Axworthy.

Chong has not returned calls from CBC News seeking comment.

Tsang and two other students have since moved out of Chong's house, but he said they believe there is one student still living there.

Since Tsang was a minor when he came to Canada, his mother signed over guardianship to Chong. The other three students who lived there listed him as a relative, making the situation difficult to monitor, according to the university.

Plus, the arrangement was made completely outside of the university's own homestay program, which 90to 95 per cent of international students use.

"Their parents entered into a relationship that was outside of the purview, and a contract outside of the institution's awareness and purview — and in that sense, legal responsibility," Read said.

Read added that the students were moved to a university residence once the school was made aware of their issues with the cost of their accommodations and the food provided.

Kept complaints hidden for years

Tsang said he stayed at Chong's home for years because he decided it was best to keep his complaints hidden, even from his mother.

"I'm pretty scared because I'm the only one here and the only one I know is him, so I didn't tell my mom because I don't want her to worry," he said.

Elizabeth Saewyc, a University of British Columbia professor who has studied students in homestay programs, said there is generally little to no oversight of the people who take care of those students while they are in Canada.

"We're very concerned," said Saewyc, the university's chair of applied public health research.

"This lack of sort of figuring out who's in charge really creates the opportunity for kids to fall through the cracks."

She said when parents are not around, students can get into trouble. There is also the possibility of homestay families taking advantage of students, she added.

The University of Winnipeg has had as many as 120 recruiting agents in the past, but it has now put in place a new recruitment process, according to officials.

While 60 recruiters remain, it hopes to eventually do all its recruitment through a single company.