Foreign students say they 'have no choice' but to work more than their permits allow

After thousands joined the effort to stop an international student from being deported, others are speaking out about why they have to work more than the maximum 20 hours a week to support themselves.

Students speak out after Jobandeep Singh Sandhu was told he would be deported

Abhishek Hastir was recently interviewed in a documentary about challenges that international students face when they come to Canada. (Talia Ricci/CBC)

For Jobandeep Singh Sandhu, it was his job as a truck driver that got him in trouble.

The 22-year-old student was pulled over by Ontario Provincial Police while behind the wheel of a long-haul truck driving from Montreal back to Toronto in December 2017. Immigration officials determined he had been working more than the allowable 20 hours off campus.

Sandhu's story is becoming more common as the number of foreign students has spiked in Canada over the past several years to around 600,000, while the resources needed to make sure they're properly employed and housed have not kept pace, critics say.

 Abhishek Hastir, an engineering student from India now at Sheridan College in Brampton, says he's not currently working more than his study permit allows, but he has in the past.

"If you look around, there are plenty of students who would be breaking the law to be honest," Hastir says.

"They have no choice."

Hastir says in his first year of school he would attend class, and then work overnights in a factory from 7 p.m. to 11 a.m. He says he knew many students who had the same routine.

Referring to that factory job, he says: "They definitely didn't treat us like humans, I used to work on a production line where they would speed up the conveyor belt."

Hastir says many of his co-workers in that factory were also foreign students, and that it's not uncommon to see international students falling asleep in classrooms and on buses because of their work schedules.

A screenshot shows how much an international student pays for one semester of an engineering program at Sheridan College. (Submitted)

The 22-year-old says students have no choice because they have to find ways to pay their fees. The student showed CBC News his tuition fees, which were over $25,000 for three semesters. That doesn't include living expenses, food or any supplies needed for school.

"It's not like they were earning money to send back home," Hastir says.

"Students either have to work too many hours or they have to pinch pennies to feed themselves so they can pay their school fees."

To save money in first year, Hastir says he had to share a one-bedroom basement apartment with three other students. 

"The condition of the home was deplorable."

But they still had to pay $400 each a month, he says.

Lack of support

Sutama Ghosh, now an associate professor and the undergraduate program director of the geographic analysis program at Ryerson University, was once an international student herself.

She's seen how things have changed over the last decade in the universities and colleges.

"This is a huge tangled web that needs to be properly regulated," Ghosh said.

"We need to have policies that ensure these people who are already vulnerable, leaving their own lands, aren't exploited."

Ghosh is researching the way foreign students at colleges and universities are treated and the challenges they face.

One of her concerns is how many students are being granted study permits and how much that number has increased over the last few years, without the supports in place to ensure they are properly housed and employed.

Sutama Ghosh, an associate professor at Ryerson University and a former international student herself, says there isn't a lot of research being done about the ways international students are being supported in their transition to Canada. (Talia Ricci/CBC)

According to government numbers, there were 315,915 study permit holders in Ontario in 2018 compared to 199,920 in 2015 — a 58 per cent increase in study permits over that time. Ontario has seen the biggest jump in the number of foreign students in three years.

British Columbia had the second highest number of international students with 128,820 in 2015 and 155,455 in 2018.

Across Canada, there were more than 600,000 international study permit holders in 2018.

That number can fluctuate due to some students not coming, others leaving early and some staying longer.

Referring to Sandhu's case, Ghosh says, "This is not an issue with the truck driving industry, it's an issue with all industries which employ international students."

Push for permanent resident status

A group called Migrant Workers Alliance for Change organized a petition to dispute Sandhu's deportation, which has gathered more than 50,000 signatures.

"We've also heard from over 1,000 students just in response to that one petition who we are meeting with across the country," said Syed Hussan, the alliance's coordinator.

Some of the issues students have reached out about include being paid less than minimum wage and facing sexual harassment in the workplace.

Hussan says the international students coming to Canada would be better protected if they were given permanent resident status upon arrival.

"It's not about moving some chairs around, increasing the hours from 20 to 21," Hussan says.

"It's a much more fundamental issue."

In an email to CBC News, Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada says "study permit holders must abide by the conditions listed on their study permits." 

This regulation tries to ensure that study permit holders are genuine students.

Source: Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada

The email goes on to say, "this regulation tries to ensure that study permit holders are genuine students" and that "limiting off-campus work to 20 hours per week while class is in session reflects that the student is genuinely pursuing their studies."

International students are permitted to work full-time only outside of the academic year or during winter, spring and summer breaks.

Hastir says in an attempt to work within the rules, he found himself working 164 hours in a two-week period when he was off school, to save money for his program.

'We struggle a lot'

One student who did not want to be identified because it might put his student permit at risk told CBC News that Sandhu's story made him feel sick because he personally knows many students who are in the same position.

"It was pretty hard for me to digest," he said. 

"I know there are many conditions where people have to work full time.  They have no other choice, they can't get money from back home." 

Both students said they were required to prove to the government they had sufficient funds to pay for their first year of schooling, but they didn't have to continue proving their families' finances after that first year.

This international student from India says many of his friends back home are pursuing education elsewhere because they aren't able to get jobs in India after graduating. (Talia Ricci/CBC)

As an only child, the 21-year-old says being in school in Canada is his parents' biggest investment. He used to work more than 20 hours a week at a truck wash but has since stopped because he didn't want to ruin his future and risk being sent back to India.

India is one of the countries with the highest number of students coming to Canada.

According to government numbers, in 2015, close to 32,000 people from India held study permits in Canada. That number in 2018 was around 107,000 — more than tripling in three years.

He believes international students should be allowed to work full time if they choose. Showing off his transcripts where his average was in the 90's, he says clearly for him, the work did not affect his grades.

"Every international student knows that if they don't study, one day they'll have to go back," he says.

"So, working full time helps the struggle. We struggle a lot but it's okay for us. This is life, it comes with ups and downs and we are ready for them."



Talia Ricci is a CBC reporter based in Toronto. She has travelled around the globe with her camera documenting people and places as well as volunteering. Talia enjoys covering offbeat human interest stories and exposing social justice issues. When she's not reporting, you can find her reading or strolling the city with a film camera.