Howard Levitt: Dark side of international student push is exploitation in labour market

Howard Levitt and Lavan Narenthiran: Government takes hands-off approach as students funnel billions into economy

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By Howard Levitt and Lavan Narenthiran

The federal government’s irresponsible approach to immigration has led to the exploitation of foreign workers and damage to the domestic Canadian labour market. International students have been sold a false dream by governments, temporary work agencies, immigration consultants and certain private, unregulated, career colleges.

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Upon arriving in Canada, many are faced with the harsh reality of paying exorbitant tuition fees for degrees of limited value from unaccredited, unregulated “private career colleges.” With few options in the labour market, these students are often pressured into accepting exploitative employment.

International students import billions of dollars annually into our economy resulting in government taking a hands-off approach to the issue. Its focus has been on bringing in as many international students possible without necessary safeguards to ensure they are not exploited.

This approach has led to the rise of private career colleges. Ontario has 24 accredited colleges, such as Seneca and Centennial, which provide invaluable education and training to domestic and international students alike for jobs that are in demand. However, more than 600 private career colleges have opened in Ontario alone, largely in an effort to capitalize on the influx of international students. Compared to the legitimate colleges, many of these career colleges leave students with no real education or marketability.

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Duplicitous employers and temporary work agencies take advantage of this vulnerable group, with many unaware of their legal rights and in need of cash.

In one example, an international student worker in Brampton, Ont., filed a complaint with the Ontario Ministry of Labour, stating that her employer paid her in cash under the table, violated overtime rules and stole over $18,000 worth of wages over six months. The employee was only paid $100 for a 12-hour workday, far less than the minimum wage, and was subjected to conditions so exhausting that she fainted multiple times. The owners left her on the ground while walking around her collapsed body. Although the ministry commented that they had begun investigating and found her complaint valid, the matter only settled after the employee took her story to the public with the support of media and protests organized by a grassroots organization, Naujawan Support Network (NSN).

She ultimately settled with the employer for more than $16,000 in unpaid wages. While that amount seems small, this is a story of comparative success relative to most. But we cannot rely upon grassroots organizations and the media to enforce Canadian labour laws, particularly with the number of international students steadily increasing.

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There has been some progress that should make marginal employers wary.

In a positive development, the second part of the rollout of Ontario’s Working for Workers Act, 2021 which amended the Employment Standards Act, 2000 (ESA), took effect on Jan. 1, 2024. Many employers, looking to exploit workers, partner with equally unscrupulous temporary help agencies and recruiters to supply a never-ending stream of vulnerable foreign workers. Starting this year, temporary help agencies and recruiters will be required to hold a licence to continue operating. Employers who knowingly use unlicensed temporary help agencies and recruiters will be in violation of the ESA. Although this is one positive step, there is a long road ahead.

Permanent residency is an enticing goal and employers have taken advantage of foreign workers by promising letters of employment in exchange for working under exploitative conditions. Adding to the pressure, international students are limited to working 20 hours per week, leading them to accept under-the-table arrangements to make ends meet as they face a high cost of living and international tuition fees. While foreign workers are protected under the ESA, they are often unaware of their rights, discouraged from enforcing them or practically have little choice.

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The federal government has irresponsibly managed its immigration policy, focusing on numbers and dollars without consideration of infrastructure and regulation to support these groups and protect the Canadian labour market.

Canadian workers are also negatively impacted when it is simpler to exploit foreign workers with low wages and abysmal working conditions than comply with legal standards.

Ensuring rights for foreign workers benefits all workers and increases the number of high quality and lawful workers available for our economy.

Howard Levitt is senior partner of Levitt Sheikh, employment and labour lawyers with offices in Toronto and Hamilton. He practices employment law in eight provinces. He is the author of six books including the Law of Dismissal in Canada. Lavan Narenthiran is a lawyer with Levitt Sheikh.

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