The Cap’s Been Popped

Federal Government Lifts 20-Hour Work Week Limit for International Students

International students will no longer be faced with a maximum of 20 hours of work a week. Graphic Nadine Abdellatif

Ottawa announced that from Nov. 15 until the end of 2023, the 20-hour work week limit for international students eligible to work off-campus while studying will be lifted. 

The goal of this measure is allegedly to “help Canada’s post-pandemic growth and provide a boost to thousands of employers looking to add to their staff for the upcoming holiday season,” Immigration Minister Sean Fraser said in a press conference on Oct. 7.

The federal government hopes this trial period will fight Canada’s widespread labour shortage hitting every province. While this change was presented as good news for both students and employers, some question that increasing the workforce might not be the appropriate response to the depreciation of the value of wages.

“It changes how you’re protected,” said Naomi Levy, an assistant at the Concordia Student Union’s Housing and Job Resource Centre. “If people are in situations that are dangerous or where their rights aren’t being respected, [...] (that measure) protects them more than if someone works off the books getting paid under the table.”

It’s hard to predict the impacts of this policy, the reality being that many students did not wait for the government’s green light.

“I work around 25 hours a week. My manager wants everyone to work more, and doesn’t pay us for it.” — Peter

“Officially, on my paycheck, [my employers] pay me 20 hours, but they’ll increase the hourly rate to make it match the number of extra hours I did,” said Vlad, an Concordia international student from Iran who works about 30 hours a week, and wished to remain anonymous.

Peter, an international student from France who wished to remain anonymous, recently started a new job in a restaurant. The student reports missing hours on his paycheck and says he doesn't know when or how he’ll be paid his extra hours.

“I work around 25 hours a week,” Peter said. “My manager wants everyone to work more, and doesn’t pay us for it.”

Swane Lebrun, an international student from France, works 20 hours per week at a medical clinic, but works an extra five to 10 hours babysitting, which is typically off the books. 

“I’m fine with the 20-hour limit,” Lebrun said. “Babysitting gives me extra pocket money and I can still use that time to study, but I couldn’t handle more hours at the clinic with the course-load I have.” she added.

Val, who is from Switzerland, works at a pizzeria on Place des Arts. He said that his bosses rely so much on international students that whenever a study permit-holder exceeds the cap, they get paid in cash. He is scared, however, that without the 20-hour limit, some students might neglect their studies to start working full-time. “I have friends who wanted to drop courses to make more money, but the limit kept them in school,” Val said.

“If you raise the cap, then people might feel more pressure (to work more), but people who need the money are going to work those jobs.” — Naomi Levy

Levy, along with other labour advocates, believe that incentivizing students to work more is not an adequate solution. “If [the government’s] goal was ultimately to ensure that international students are not working over 20 hours and if they didn’t need to, then the answer would be to increase the wages,” Levy added.

The minimum wage, in Levy’s opinion, is by no means a living wage, especially for people juggling work life and their studies. “If you raise the cap, then people might feel more pressure (to work more), but people who need the money are going to work those jobs,” they said.

As the unemployment-to-job-vacancy ratio reached a historic low of one in the first quarter of 2022, compared to 2.3 before the pandemic, the reality of the labour shortage is undeniable. 

The change brought about by the federal government will allow students to legally work more hours and get appropriately paid. However, as long as  minimum wage doesn’t keep up with Canada’s rising cost of living, advocates say the problem will only rage on.

This article originally appeared in Volume 43, Issue 5, published October 25, 2022.