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International students say they feel exploited by college system

'We've got institutions that are seeing the dollar signs of bringing these students over,' says Cambridge MP as exploitation of international students runs rampant
Students walk the Doon Campus at Conestoga College in Kitchener.

This story was first published by CambridgeToday, a Village Media publication.

Walking through the doors of Trinity Community Table (TCT) is a group of seven international students and they are all here for the same thing; a hot meal, a sandwich and some food to go.

This has become a near-daily routine for the group as they sit down at their regular table with their lunches and hot coffees. 

In a time when food banks in other municipalities like Brampton are turning international students away, organizations like TCT welcome everyone with open arms.

"Sadly this is all they know as the experience of coming to Canada to get an education. This is not normal," said Cheryl MacInnes from TCT.

Over the past year, the community kitchen went from feeding 80 people to nearly 140 every single day. 

An international student from India who is attending Conestoga College has only been in Canada for six months, but is already feeling like coming to study here may have been a mistake. 

"We didn't realize how expensive everything was going to be here, we can't afford to live," said the student who will be identified as Singh. 

The student has agreed to speak with CambridgeToday with the exception of not using his real name over fears of being deported or facing recourse from their landlord. 

Since being in Canada, Singh has worked three jobs for a trial period of two weeks before being fired without pay. This practice would allow restaurants to hire workers for a short amount of time, unpaid, to see if they would be a good fit. 

Employers would use this as an excuse for free labour. It had become so common in Ontario that it has now been outlawed by the provincial government. 

According to Cambridge Chamber of Commerce CEO, Greg Durocher, this is an exploitative practice that takes advantage of international students. 

The student has obtained a part-time job, but admits he still does not have enough for food, rent and leisure activities. 

"The amount that I am paying in rent, I can't go and do other things. We come here for food and other food banks, but I am not able to go out and have fun," Singh said. 

Singh and his five roommates are currently living in a two bedroom apartment where they pay $500 each. 

According to Cambridge bylaw, the maximum number of occupants in a dwelling unit is based on two persons per bedroom. This means if there is a two-bedroom unit, only four people can be living in the entire apartment. 

Ankit Patel, president of the Gujarati Hindu Society in Cambridge, says that this kind of exploitation is all too common for international students coming here from India. 

"Unfortunately they do not know their rights and are being bullied and lied to by their landlords and employers," Patel said. "You have students even working cash jobs and if someone tells them to do something or is doing something bad, they can't complain."

This fear that landlords and employers instill in the students create a system of disinformation, added Patel.

If one student thinks they can be deported or lose their study visa because they complained about their living conditions, they will unknowingly spread it thinking they're helping others.

"This is doing terrible for them, because now they are easily taken advantage of," he said. 

Cambridge MP Bryan May thinks the institutions that are bringing these students over need to bear more responsibility for caring for these students and properly vetting them before sending out acceptance letters. 

"I've heard the institutions saying that it's not their responsibility to house these individuals. I beg to differ," May said. "It absolutely is, the whole reason they are in this country is because of your acceptance letter. I think it's a cop out to say otherwise." 

May thinks some colleges and universities see dollar signs when it comes to international students. 

"They are exploiting these students and not necessarily bringing people over that qualify for a number of different reasons."

He also said that a new enhanced verification system will be in place at the end of 2024 to better ensure that students who are coming into Canada are able to support themselves while in the country. 

Singh would like to see Conestoga College get a better handle on student residences and accommodations, but has little hope it will happen while he's studying there, even though he's only been in Canada a short time. 

"The food bank in the school is not enough for all students, that is why we come here (TCT). If they had housing available then we wouldn't have to all be in a small two bedroom," he said. "We're all packed into a small room, sleeping on a mattress. This was not our first choice."

In an emailed response to CambridgeToday after this story was published, Conestoga College said they have a number of measures in place to help international students. 

"Conestoga has a large support team in place to help international students from the moment they begin their application process, through their arrival in Canada, their academic journey and beyond," wrote communications manager for the college Brenda Bereczki. 

Bereczki said the college offers a food program for students that, "provides access to nutritious food and meals as well as an emergency food fund to support students who are experiencing food insecurity."

She said the college also purchased two buildings in Waterloo, one in Kitchener and one in Brantford to be converted for student housing.

Despite these measures, students are still finding it difficult to find adequate housing in the region and relying on food banks and free meals from agencies like TCT and the Salvation Army. 

May said he would champion any college or institution that wanted to build student housing here in Cambridge or the surrounding area. 

"The federal government has a strong willingness to want to partner with both provinces and organizations to build not just student housing, but affordable housing across the board," May said. "This is something those institutions have to recognize." 

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