By Naomi Chen
International students are increasingly anxious about post-graduate employment as their study permits expire, according to the Migrant Worker Alliance for Change (MWAC). The pandemic has added challenges to the current requirements for permanent residency applicants.
Upon graduation, international students receive an eight to 36-month post-graduate work permit, which is not renewable. To apply for permanent residency in Canada, international student graduates must acquire one to two years of work experience within industries allowed by the National Occupational Codes (NOC).
However, according to MWAC, the labour market shrunk significantly due to the pandemic. As a result, many international students were laid off from work and are struggling to fulfill their employment requirement toward permanent residency.
“Through no fault of their own, migrant students have lost time to complete the one year employment,” said Sarom Rho, migrant student worker organizer at MWAC. “Right now there are tens of thousands of migrant students with expired or expiring work permits, and they are banking on [Marco Mendicino, minister of immigration, refugees and citizenship] to make the permit renewable.”
Lower-level positions in industries like retail and food services—where many international students are employed as essential workers—are listed in the NOC as skill level C, and thus aren’t valid as year-long work experience for recent graduates, according to the government of Canada.
Lefika Baloyi is a fourth-year mathematics student from Botswana who is working a job and seeking internships in an industry more related to his career goals. However, he is unable to do both due to the restrictions on his study permit.
Even under normal circumstances, international students struggle to integrate into the Canadian workforce, he said. “Most people tend to find employment through networking, local connections…If you don’t know too many employers here, it is very daunting to throw yourself out there as an international student.”
In spite of these difficulties, Rho said the government has done little to alleviate international students’ stress. “The Canada Emergency Student Benefit exclusively excludes international students from applying even though [they] pay three times more in tuition.”
With difficulty in job searching and increased racist sentiments towards East-Asians due to COVID-19, some new graduates fear the possibility of deportation.
“Some of my friends decided to just go back to China—they stress out too much being here,” said Lidia Zhu, a second-year architecture student at the University of Toronto.
Those who return to their home countries temporarily have to adjust to a different time zone and technology challenges. Zhu said given the country’s restrictions towards Google, her friends in China find it difficult to access their lecture slides from universities abroad.
“I can only sleep at 4 a.m. and wake up at 3 p.m. for class time in North America, different from everyone else here,” said Lina Moon, an international student at the University of Toronto who chose to go back to South Korea earlier this year.
While some international students chose to leave Canada temporarily, others stayed here to quarantine alone. Each of the international students quoted in this story said the struggle to cope with self isolation—accompanied by urgent employment anxieties—make their concerns deserving of the government’s support.
In September, the MWAC organized a protest against the difficult expectations to obtain permanent residency outside of deputy prime minister, Chrystia Freeland’s office. Another movement took place on Nov. 24 where dozens of petitions were delivered to Minister Mendicino’s office asking for more lenient measures towards international students.
According to MWAC, it is critical that the Canadian government values international students’ work towards permanent residency and ensures that they have accessible means to employment.