International students facing Canada’s job rules plead for ‘time to breathe’

Savitri Sinanan should be thrilled to receive her bachelor’s degree this April — a milestone of her tortuous journey, which started in 2014, to pursue her immigrant dream in Canada.

However, her upcoming graduation from Toronto’s George Brown College has been marked with stress and anxiety as the international student may have reached the end of the rope to remain in the country permanently.

The Trinidadian and her family have spent a fortune on her education in Canada over the years, including a diploma in early childhood education and a postgraduate certificate in strategic management at Centennial College.

When her current study permit expires in July, if she hasn’t secured a job that’s eligible for permanent residence in Canada, she will have to go back to her homeland or enroll herself in yet another school program to buy time and prolong her stay here .

“I am feeling depressed, stressed and neglected. At this point, I am just numb,” said Sinanan, who will speak at a news conference by Migrant Students United on Thursday to call on Ottawa to relax its rules against international students and graduates.

“Now, I’m at that juncture again to make that decision to go home or get into a master’s program, which costs at least $24,000 a year. After that, it may happen again.”

According to advocates, international students have become the largest group of temporary migrant workers in Canada — they can work up to 20 hours a week off campus during school, and get a postgraduate-work permit after they finish their academic programs.

Last year, there were a total of 778,560 study-permit holders and postgraduate-work permit holders in Canada, but many of them would not be selected for permanent residence because spots are limited, reserved for those with jobs classified under the high-skill, high-wage categories.

In 2022, for instance, skilled immigration is allotted 241,850 spaces but international graduates must compete with others who don’t have Canadian education and employment credentials.

“Tens of thousands of graduated migrant student workers are unable to get the high-waged job experience necessary for permanent residency,” said Sarom Rho of the Migrant Students United. “Now that their permits are expiring, they need renewable work permits or they face deportation.”

International students are eligible for a postgraduate-work permit for up to three years but it’s only issued once, regardless of how many academic programs the person has enrolled in.

Those who look to apply for permanent residence need to accumulate at least a year of relevant full-time employment experience to qualify within that three-year time frame. Job experience amassed as a student does not count.

Those restrictions mean misfortune can have dire consequences for international students.

Sinanan graduated from her first program at Centennial College in 2016 and received a three-year postgraduate-work permit, but it took her some time before she landed a full-time job at an early childhood education center.

But just as she was in her 11th month of employment, she suffered a bad fall that took her off work for six months. Her permanent-residence application for her was refused because she was one month short, so she went back to school in 2019.

Just when she was graduating from her second program at Centennial, the pandemic hit and made finding any job a challenge. That’s when she proceeded with the early-childhood leadership program at George Brown.

She has been working as an early-childhood educator for a temp agency during the pandemic but it’s been restricted to 20 hours a week — and since the job isn’t full time, none of the hours count for her permanent residence.

“My parents have spent close to $100,000 on my education in tuition fees alone. We are not talking about coffee change here,” said Sinanan. “Just give us that peace of mind.”

And the upheaval caused by the pandemic has just made life that much more difficult for international students and graduates.

Minzi Wataoka says it's challenging to get a skilled job in the current economic climate and restricting permanent residence to high-skilled jobs is 'classist.'

Minzi Wataoka came from Japan to Canada in middle school in 2008, and graduated from the journalism program at Ryerson University in 2019. She got a job opportunity to work in marketing in early 2020 just before COVID hit and the position disappeared.

Since then, the Toronto woman has worked on and off as a server in a restaurant just to make ends meet. Her three-year postgraduate permit is expiring later this year and she has no pathway for permanent residence in sight.

Although Ottawa did recognize the number of international students and migrant workers who have worked as essential workers during the pandemic by offering a special immigration program last year, the program only had 50,000 spots designated for international graduates, which were filled within a day. (What’s more, Wataoka didn’t have a valid English-test result the program required.)

She said it’s challenging to get a skilled job in the current economic climate and restricting permanent residence to high-skilled jobs is “classist.”

“We are only given three years to figure out our life, to find work and start a career. We are constantly on survival mode, moving from one temporary status to another. There’s no time to breathe. So why all the deadlines? asked Wataoka.

“We are not criminals. We are just trying to live a life that we want. We are trying to pursue a dream here.”

Rho of Migrant Students United said it wouldn’t cost much for Ottawa to give some breathing room for international graduates who can’t comply with the permanent-residence requirement within the restrictive time frame. The group also calls for an end to the 20-hour work limit on study-permit holders.

In fact, the federal government did acknowledge the challenges faced by international students by extending all the expiring postgraduate-work permits last year for up to 18 months.

Rho said the road ahead is just going to get tougher. Ottawa has reduced the quotas for the Federal Skilled Worker stream and Canadian Experience Class — two popular programs among international graduates — this year to 55,900 from 110,500 spots, meaning even more competition.

“Prime Minister Justin Trudeau already made postgraduate-work permits renewable once. It worked. There’s no reason to stop now,” Rho said.

Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based reporter covering immigration for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung


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