CW: Mention of suicide

The challenges faced by international students have been well documented and discussed in the past, to the point of the rampant exploitation of and discrimination against them becoming somewhat of an open secret.

While the complexities of immigration are generally not new, in recent years, we have seen an increase in lateral violence—whereby older immigrants and children of immigrants are benefitting from and contributing to the exploitation of newer immigrants. 

The vulnerable position that international students are put into leads to many financial and mental health struggles, and we have seen countless instances where students have faced violence, or in some cases, have died by suicide in the face of numerous and repeated struggles. 

When one of these stories comes to light, the entire community rallies to discuss the need to help international students and to open up more avenues for support and community. 

Yet those in actual positions of power, continue to perpetuate the cycle of violence and exploitation, and many allow their internalized biases against students to influence their attitudes and actions. 

In December, business owner and entrepreneur Raveena Oberoi of Just Cakes Bakeshop tweeted about an incident of exploitation she had become aware of from one of her employees. 

Her employee was inquiring about an “LMIA” application, which is a Labour Market Impact Assessment.

An LMIA is filled out by an employer to show that there is a need to hire a foreign worker for a job they were unable to fill locally. 

The issue arises when employers are charging students or foreign workers extremely high amounts to apply for LMIA—which according to Oberoi, ranges from $25,000 to $50,000, or more. The responses to her tweet claim a similar figure.

When she began asking her employees questions about the process and what they had seen or heard, Oberoi learned how common this type of exploitation was.

“People are basically extorting or exploiting students or other work permit immigrant workers,” she said in an interview with 5XPress.

“This is the norm, [and] this is a problem. People are taking advantage of international students or people on work permit[s].”

Gurleen Kaur from Team WeCare, an international student organization that assists newcomers to Canada, explained that LMIA fraud is just one of the many forms of exploitation impacting international students.

Immigration consultants are also preying on vulnerable students who are often unsure of the immigration process, charging them anywhere between $15,000 to $40,000, according to Kaur.

“Fear leads to them paying consultants so much, because they just want to be sure and their families ask them to be sure about whatever they do, because immigration for them is something really, really important. They don't want to take a chance with that.”

The fear of the unknown, coupled with the extremely high tuition and cost of living, paves the way to many students working cash jobs under the table, given that they aren’t able to work more than 20 hours a week when on a study permit.

“There's so many people who come to us and talk about exploitation, even sexual exploitation, and they can't speak out in public because the hours they were working or the time they were working, there was not any record,” said Kaur.

Students then get employed for less than minimum wage, working six to seven days a week for more than 8 hours a day, without sick leave or vacation time. 

Balraj Kahlon from One Voice Canada reiterated how immigration to Canada has become a big business, where so many are profiting from the exploitation of international students. 

“Some of these employers that I've dealt with and talked to… I don't know how you turn them into good individuals, some of them are pretty damn cruel,” said Kahlon.

Employers put the fear of deportation into the international students they employ, which causes them to remain quiet and often pay bribes in exchange for PR.

“They [fear] they'll get deported back to India, which is like a death sentence for them. Whereas for employers, labor exploitation will get you just a slap on the wrist,” said Kahlon.

According to him, despite the community wanting to appear united, there are many things that keep us divided, and contribute to this “us vs. them” mentality.

“We’re not actually that unified. We tend to divide ourselves a lot—our community internally,” he said.

“There’s the caste system, we tend to divide people whether they're born here or born in India, what region of Punjab [they are] from sometimes.”

In her time as an employer Oberoi has seen instances of this in Surrey and beyond. She pointed out that while exploitation happens to students of all backgrounds, it is also common to see within the South Asian or Punjabi community, whereby apne [translation: our own] are exploiting other apne.

“You would assume that they’d be able to see a younger version of themselves in these students or work permit employees, but at the same time, they're blackmailing them and exploiting them,” she said.

With many youth in the diaspora also starting their own businesses or being placed in positions of power, there is a responsibility to address this issue, according to Oberoi.

“We're in a unique time, because there's a lot of young entrepreneurs and young up and coming business owners that are really making waves. So when you see this happening, call it out, or at least make the immigrant worker aware that this is not normal.”

Reeha Korpal, a former constituency assistant at an MP’s office offered insight on how the power dynamic between vulnerable workers and their employers enables this exploitation to persist.

 “I feel like the older generation kind of has this perspective, ‘you have to do this, we also had to do it,’ but it's like this cycle of violence that I feel like our community doesn't have a vested interest in dismantling,” she said. 

“Part of it is self preservation, because I think a lot of people feel like, ‘oh, this needs to go on, because I have a loved one that I feel will eventually benefit from this in the end.’ But to be honest with you, the government knows [and] the CBSA (Canadian Border Services Agency) knows, and they are working on this.”

In 2020, four B.C. businessmen were charged for their involvement in an immigration scheme including immigration consultants in Surrey.

“I think we as a community need to show [international students] that there's solidarity with them. And there's resources, and we want to help them out. I think that's kind of the first step if people are willing to take it,” said Korpal.

“They're not going to get you deported. That is the biggest lie they hold over your head. They don't have that type of power. But you have the power to get these people arrested. So please do use it.”

Korpal outlined some ways to reach out for help, including but not limited to finding support with international student organizations like Team WeCare or One Voice Canada, reaching out to the local MP’s office, to ensure a paper trail of correspondences, and to report exploitative employers.

She also called on the diaspora to do more within their own homes, and to start these conversations with their community members, family and friends.

“Change starts at home, right? If you're a first-gen Canadian, and you're helping your mom or dad's business, ask questions. Don't just turn a blind eye, look into these things,” she said.

“If your dad owns a construction company or a restaurant, and you're getting all these international students, maybe ask them questions and find out how they're being treated, or what their wages are, how their work permit situation is and what the what the LMIA process is, or how you're helping them to permanent residency.”

Many in the diaspora, who are wholly removed from these scenarios or unaware of the levels of deep exploitation that are taking place, are in a position of privilege. Korpal says that although it’s easier to look away, this is what enables the atrocity to continue.

“It's very uncomfortable to think about these things when you are in a position of privilege. But it can't just be the person that's in a disadvantaged situation to constantly be their own advocate. That's exhausting,” said Korpal

While the community frequently rallies to celebrate our wins, or to grieve the tragedies that impact our own, it’s time for us to address our many shortcomings. 

Many of us are complicit in enabling the cycle of violence to continue. It can't just be about saving face, when we could be saving lives.

We can’t just pretend we don’t see it.

About the author

Rumneek Johal

Rumneek is a journalist, host and speaker. She is currently the BC Reporter at Press Progress where she focuses on systemic inequality, workers and communities, as well as racism and far-right extremism. Her previous work centers on asking tough questions within her community, starting conversation and chipping away at the status quo. Other focus areas for her work include the South Asian community, arts and culture, pop culture, and more. She is a proud Punjabi woman from Surrey, BC.

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