In 2012, Armeet bet her future on attending college in Vancouver, B.C. She left her small town in India’s state of Punjab to enrol in a 2.5-year diploma program at Columbia College, a private school that charges $5,000 per semester to international students.
Armeet (whose name is changed to protect her identity) not only needed to meet those bills, she had to pay for living in one of North America’s most expensive housing markets. By the time the 19-year old was well into her second year at Columbia, the family money had run out. As the deadline to pay her fourth semester tuition loomed, her father gave her the news. “You’ll have to try and make it on your own.”
Make it on her own in Vancouver is what Armeet then tried to do, beginning in 2013. But as an immigrant with only a student visa, she was not allowed to work full time. Education would have to wait. Over the next four years, Armeet was conned into paying $15,000 to a consultant promising to help her join Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program, then became mired in low-wage jobs as her hopes for a diploma receded from view.
Armeet shared her story with The Tyee through her lawyer, Mandy Shergill, who says her client is one of many international students caught in the second-year trap — running out of money within a year of enrolling at post-secondary schools in B.C., then falling prey to rip-offs and abuse and underpaid jobs while they struggle to stay in Canada and re-enrol.
International students generate billions of dollars in Canada. In B.C. alone, international students add spending of $3 billion, creating 26,000 jobs and contributing over $1.77 billion to the provincial GDP, according to a report by the B.C. Federation of Students.
For those whose families aren’t wealthy, how they manage to scrape up the money remains largely in the shadows. Canadians caught a glimpse in May, when the story of Jobandeep Sandhu from Punjab made headlines. The international student at Canadore College in Mississauga, Ont., was driving a truck for pay when he was arrested after a routine traffic stop for working more than the 20 hours a week his study permit allowed.
In a TV interview with Global News, Sandhu said working full time was the only way he could continue to afford his education. Over the past decade, unregulated international tuition for Ontario higher education had risen far faster than for domestic students.
Sandhu was strapped with nearly $27,000 in school charges, and the family’s savings back home were drained. When arrested, he was days away from receiving his mechanical engineering degree.
“I never lied,” Sandhu said. “I didn’t kill anybody. I didn’t rob. My only crime is that I was working,” he said. Nevertheless, he was deported on July 10.
A similar scramble to pay her bills led Armeet to seek a Temporary Foreign Worker’s visa to replace her student status. While attending school, she’d already been working part-time for a small business in Surrey. Her employer suggested he could assist her in applying for a Labour Market Impact Assessment, which would help her gain Temporary Foreign Worker status. All he had to do was call his friend, a connected consultant.
The employer, says Shergill, asked Armeet to pay $15,000 in cash. Armeet says she scraped up some of that from relatives and her own savings and promised to pay more in instalments. The money, Armeet believes, was shared between the consultant and her employer.
It is legal for consultants to charge immigrants for advice and paperwork, but not for arranging a job.
The amount Armeet paid is higher than what a consultant should charge, according to experts. But Shergill, whose law practice is based in Surrey, says she has heard of some agents charging far more — up to $50,000 — to help newcomers to Canada land Temporary Foreign Worker status.
“What kind of magic are you doing that you are charging someone $40,000 to $50,000 in recruitment fees?” Shergill scoffs. “Are you doing plastic surgery? No, you’re not.”
The expensive new visa didn’t lead where Armeet had hoped. Now she was able to work full time, but she claims her employer paid just $7 an hour instead of minimum wage, $10.25 at the time. Her employer constantly asked her, “Why should I be paying tax money for you?” and demanded she give him $300 each month to compensate for what he sent the government in payroll taxes. Armeet didn’t realize his asking for cash back was illegal and complied.
Shergill, whose practice includes immigration law, said many international students are ill-informed and ripe for such exploitation. “Most times people just don’t know.”
But the law does not take into account how naive such students can be. “Anybody new coming to the country should be made aware that there are consultants and agents who are misguiding and giving wrong information,” says Shergill.
“When you come here,” says Armeet, “you always hear about your responsibilities. But nobody tells you what your rights are.”
Armeet usually worked 12-hour shifts with just one day off. If she protested, her employer would dangle a prize — permanent resident status — and say, “If you want to work with me and apply for PR, then you have to work the number of hours I am telling you to, or else go find work somewhere else.” Under the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, she was in fact tied to her employer.
Finally, the strain and emotional abuse from her employer became too much, says Armeet, and she quit. “I was personally attacked, insulted, mocked on my appearance, and even cussed at. I felt mentally tortured,” she told The Tyee.
The case was resolved out of court with a settlement that included no admission of guilt.
In December 2018, the number of post-secondary international students in Canada was 435,415, a 17 per cent increase over the year before. But that world is carved into different, sometimes competing players, says Vancouver-based immigration lawyer Zool Suleman.
“Every member in this immigration ecosystem has their own interest. Schools want to get foreign students to subsidize their budgets. Because either [they are] private schools or [they are] public schools facing cutbacks from public funding.
“Recruiters and agents have an incentive to build up value,” he says, and that can lead them to misrepresent “what is possible here” for a student hoping to pay their way once in Canada.
Suleman understands how one might end up in financial trouble. “They’re desperate. They’re trying to get out of the countries they’re in. If they can graduate and get permanent residency in Canada, then they can bring their family to Canada. So there is tremendous pressure on these students.”
Armeet looked at her Temporary Foreign Worker permit as truly temporary. As soon as she’d earned enough savings, she intended to return to school. Instead for more than three years she was exploited and ill-treated. Finally, in 2017, Armeet again applied for a study permit. She finally is finishing her last semester at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, at a cost of $7,000.
Shergill says the federal law meant to protect Temporary Foreign Workers does not go far enough. She suggests the government set up a hotline that foreign students can call for advice on regulations and their legal rights.
She is blunt in warning international students who romanticize learning and living in this country. “Canada,” she says, “is not a walk in the park.”
The people — schools, governments and businesses — who sell that dream to international students owe them a realistic picture. “We need to stop presenting ourselves like we have nothing but great opportunities to provide,” Shergill says. “We don’t present to the global market that there are problems in our backyard and not everybody will survive.”
Armeet says she knows other foreign students who, like her, halted their studies, sought a work permit, then found themselves trapped in a similar hole. Too many people back home, she says, believe a young person can come to Canada and easily get good paying work in order to afford tuition after their first year.
Armeet is still recovering from the stress she endured when the money ran out and her impressions of a welcoming Canada melted away. “In reality it was not what it looked like.”