International students in Winnipeg call change to work hour limit a good step but not enough
Manitoba Federation of Labour says the temporary measure should be made permanent
International students in Manitoba are welcoming changes by the federal government that would allow them to work unlimited hours, but say the measure doesn't go far enough to address the pressing challenges they face.
"I'm excited, honestly, and I'm very, very happy," said Ivan Nunez Gamez, an international student from Honduras studying political studies and economics at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg.
"This is definitely a win. We should not undermine it, but we need to continue the conversation and stop treating international students like second-class citizens," he added.
Presently, international students whose studies permit allow them to work off-campus can work a maximum of 20 hours each week during the school term. There is no limit during breaks.
On Friday, federal Immigration Minister Sean Fraser said lifting this limit will help alleviate a labour shortage in Canada. It will come into effect under a pilot project, which will run from Nov. 15, 2022, to Dec. 31, 2023.
Nunez Gamez said international students like himself have been grappling with the cost of living going up, and so they will benefit from the change.
He said it also shows the value of international students to the economy, which he says is not reflected in other policies affecting that group.
"For instance, here in Manitoba, international students still do not have public-funded health care. We're treated like second-class citizens and our tuition has increased every single year I've been a student," said Nunez Gamez.
Just last month, Nunez Gamez took part in a protest organized by the Manitoba Alliance of Post-Secondary Students at the Manitoba Legislative Building, calling on the provincial government to address the lack of public health insurance coverage for international students.
What happens after the labour shortage
Meanwhile, Ana Sofía Díaz said she has already put in her request for her hours to go up once the federal government's changes kick in.
Sofía Diaz, who is in her fourth year of an advanced degree in psychology at the University of Manitoba, said even though she welcomes the news, it's "bittersweet" based on the government's statement that the change aims to tackle the present labour shortage in Canada.
"It's temporary and then it just feels like the moment they no longer need us to help them with the employment crisis, then we're going to be disposed of," she said.
Kevin Rebeck, president of the Manitoba Federation of Labour, said he thinks it's "unfortunate" that this is only a temporary measure.
"I think it should be a permanent change, to allow these students that flexibility and that option should they want to take up work and gain more experience in a Canadian work environment," said Rebeck.
Rebeck said there are many people with skills and training that come from other countries and that "we should create full paths for citizenship for them and welcome them to our economy and to our country and work together better."
Rodolphe Poka, a past student at Université de Saint-Boniface in Winnipeg, said if Canada is serious about international students entering the workforce, then it's important that immigration officials count the hours that international students work while they are in school toward their Canadian work experience requirements when they apply for permanent residency.
More than just money
Tolani Olanrewaju, who graduated from the University of Manitoba in February, said in considering whether to make the pilot program permanent, the federal government should consider that the current cap affects not only how much students can earn while working, but also how much job experience they gain.
She said in her final year of school, she emailed companies to ask if she could gain work experience that would help after she graduated. One employer expressed interest in taking her on, but wanted someone who could work more than 20 hours, she said.
"I remember just being really sad about it, that I really had to say no," Olanrewaju said.
"It would have given me so much more experience and opportunity, honestly even more confidence of being able to apply after graduation."
Olanrewaju said she doesn't understand why her friends who are Canadian citizens could work full-time throughout school, yet international students who have substantially higher tuition to pay were limited in the hours they can work.
Nunez Gamez said lifting the limit on hours will allow him to take on supervisory or managerial roles at his retail job, which he couldn't access previously.
"Eliminating the cap limit actually allows a lot of outstanding international students to achieve their full potential in those positions," Nunez Gamez said, adding that leadership roles usually ask for upwards of 30 hours a week.
"It opens opportunities, being in those leadership positions, because they pay a little better and because they allow you to develop Canadian employment experience, which is what everyone wants."
With files from Chantallya Louis