For many international students, the news that they will soon be legally allowed to work as many hours as they want comes as a huge relief.

The federal government announced earlier this month that it will lift the 20-hour-per-week limit on work for international students on Nov. 15, in part because some are struggling financially, and in part because businesses say they’re having difficulty hiring.

Some international students have taken on tens of thousands of dollars in debt to come to Canada, where they pay three to four times the fees of domestic students. Those fees, more than $6-billion annually at an average rate of about $25,000 per student, have become a key source of revenue for the Canadian postsecondary system.

Students are also feeling the pinch of inflated rent and food costs. Ranjan Vaseeharan, a 25-year-old student from India, said the rule change would allow him to work an extra shift every week at his security job, boosting his total to 24 hours a week, a difference that will help with his tuition bill of more than $16,000.

He said nearly all his fellow international students work, some of them nearly 40 hours a week, but only 20 hours a week are above board. They also work under-the-table cash jobs to evade work regulations, meaning students risk exploitation, such as lower hourly wages or substandard safety and insurance.

“It will be good for them,” Mr. Vaseeharan said. “Now maybe students don’t need to hide their cash jobs.”

Immigration Minister Sean Fraser framed the decision to lift the cap on weekly hours as a win-win. Mr. Fraser said that the new measure, which will run as a trial until the end of 2023, will help financially strapped students while simultaneously responding to the needs of businesses.

“It’s really unique to have low unemployment and a labour shortage of this magnitude,” Mr. Fraser said. “By raising that cap, there’s potentially thousands of international students who can help alleviate the labour shortage at a time when businesses, who’ve been through a really tough couple of years, are struggling to take advantage of the opportunities they see for growth.”

But the rule change will also likely add to the pool of workers at the low end of the wage scale. And it may change the profile of the students who apply to Canada to study.

Mikal Skuterud, an economist at the University of Waterloo, said the limits on work hours are intended to protect the domestic labour market and ensure students focus on their studies. Evidence shows that if you increase the supply of low-skilled workers it puts downward pressure on wages, he said.

Lifting the cap may also have an impact on student learning and development, Prof. Skuterud said. And if the rule change becomes permanent, Canada might begin to attract applicants primarily interested in work.

In January, Australia lifted its cap of 40 hours every two weeks on international students work, but recently reversed course. The Australian government said last month that it would return to the earlier restrictions by June of next year. The Australian Financial Review reported that an elected member of the new Labour Party government, Julian Hill, said student visas were being marketed by recruiting agents abroad as “a cheap, low-rent work visa.”

A growing proportion of international students are seeking permanent residency in Canada. Last year, more than 157,000 former international students were granted permanent residency, four times as many as five years ago, according to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, in part because of selection processes that favour applicants with Canadian education.

Mr. Vaseeharan is studying at a Toronto partner campus of Sarnia’s Lambton College. He has a degree in engineering from India and was living in Dubai, but applied to a college program in Canada with the goal of obtaining permanent residency.

He said the announced change to work rules would make Canada an even more attractive destination for students.

Sarom Rho, an organizer with advocacy group Migrant Students United, said she has seen cases where students are paid less than minimum wage, are refused breaks and work in unsafe conditions. She’s also seen nearly a dozen students caught working more than 20 hours a week lose their visas and get sent home.

“This is about labour mobility. It will allow students to speak up against exploitation and mistreatment,” Ms. Rho said.

Mr. Fraser said his department will monitor the impact of the change over the next year before deciding whether it should be made permanent. He said the key observations will be how the labour market is affected, whether students are jeopardizing the quality of their studies and whether some institutions begin to recruit students with the promise of work, rather than based on their desire to study.

“We don’t want to create a backdoor for someone who’s not intending to study at a legitimate learning institution,” Mr. Fraser said.

The Globe and Mail, October 31, 2022