A downturn in key sectors, slowdown in job creation, rising prices, increasing immigration leading to competitive job market, underemployment – all these factors are contributing to a sweeping amount of pessimism about the state of the economy in Canada and the worst-hit are the international students who are feeling the pinch.
Students from Punjab who had gone to Canada for higher studies after taking education loans are finding it hard to repay the debt.
Gaurav Sharma, 20, a Global Business Management semester-2 student in Mississauga, Canada, was able to rent a private room for $300 per month a year ago and that has now skyrocketed to $2,000. The trend is not limited to just rent and prices of grocery items have also doubled. The income for international students, however, is between $50 and $80 per day, only if they can find a job. Gaurav, who went to Canada in 2022, said that prospective students should reconsider coming to Canada for the time being, as a strong financial background in India is essential to survive in the current economic conditions.
Yatharth Garg,19, a Bachelor of Business Studies (BBS) student in Brampton, added that basement and accommodations are usually $200-$300 less and are a good option for students who willing to share. He highlighted that prices of essential items such as rice have doubled in just a few months, posing a significant challenge to new students trying to manage their expenses.
Gaurav and Yatharth are not alone in this and several international students in Canada, especially those from Punjab, face similar struggles.
Though Canada may not technically be in recession, the country is experiencing an economic slowdown in various sectors (including tech, housing, and key service industries), leading to an unemployment rate of 5.5% in July this year, which was 4.9% last July, according to Canadian government reports.
Acknowledging the problem, newly appointed Canadian Housing Minister Sean Fraser had earlier this week told Reuters that shortage of affordable housing is “a very serious challenge” that could ease as inflation eases and interest rates become more predictable.
Elaborating on how the problem started, Fraser told Reuters that the pandemic hit supply chains, forcing up building costs. The Bank of Canada lifted rates to a 22-year high in July and inflation in June stood at 2.8% compared to a peak of 8.1% in June 2022. The lower rate of inflation, and the potential for interest rates to stay stable, should give the building industry more confidence going forward, Fraser told Reuters.
Another major hurdle for international students is unemployment. Students said that job agencies often prioritise candidates on work visas over students unlike earlier, and restaurants tend to hire individuals based on personal connections rather than work experience. Consequently, students have difficulty securing jobs, even with numerous listings on various platforms.
“Rent prices have surged drastically, with multiple students sharing a single room and each paying over $500. This stands in stark contrast to the previous year when a private room could be rented for just $300. Students resort to jobs like Uber Eats delivery, but the daily earnings of $50-$80 are inadequate to cover their living expenses,” Gaurav said.
Jaspreet Kaur, who completed her Business Management Studies, narrated how her parents supported her throughout her three-year course. Since arriving in 2020, the cost of living has gone up three to four times. Despite her efforts, Jaspreet could only earn around $2,500 per month while paying $1,500 in rent for a small room, leaving her with limited funds for other expenses.
Manan Gupta, a Regulated Canadian Immigration Consultant (RCIC-IRB) from Skylake Immigration based in Brampton, Ontario, stated that the economic slowdown is affecting all sections of society, with international students facing higher costs of living and limited job opportunities. The situation has led to financial hardship and mental health challenges for these students.
“Students from India are finding it hard to find part-time work to support their study and living expenses. Higher cost of living, limited choice of affordable and safe housing, reduced job opportunities and growing incidents of violence are causing stress and numerous mental health challenges for them,” said Gupta, who has over a decade experience in this field.
In such a situation, various civil society organisations, religious institutions, and food banks have stepped in to provide support through food donation drives.
Another student Balwinder Singh (not real name), from Amritsar and studying in Toronto, said that his parents have taken a loan of Rs 38 lakh for his study, and now he doesn’t even have a job, let alone repay the debt. He also mentioned that his five roommates are also reeling under a debt of Rs 15 to Rs 20 lakh.
“Despite obtaining a degree in Business Management, I am working in a restaurant for $3,000 per month, while I was expecting a $6,000 to $7,000 per month job after completing my degree,” said another student Ranjit Singh, from Jalandhar.
“After doing an engineering course, I wanted to pursue post-graduation, but I am not able to find any good job to support my studies, and I cannot take any more money from my debt-ridden parents. Now, I drive for a living. I have started driving heavy trucks which will earn me a good amount,” said another student Balkar Singh, adding that to survive in such a condition, around five students are sharing a single room in basements and doing all types of jobs that come their way.
“Most of the parents send their wards to study in Canada or in any other country either by selling their agricultural land or taking a loan against the farmland, and they have at least a debt burden of Rs 20 lakh,” said Gurpreet Singh, owner of i-Can Consultancy dealing in study abroad.
Canada-based Friends of Canada & India Foundation president, Maninder Singh Gill, said several students have become homeless here due to the high inflation rate, and they are sleeping under bridges, even without telling their families back home.
Friends of Canada & India Foundation is an organisation that takes up various social and political issues of Indians with the governments of India and Canada.
“It was easier to settle here earlier than now. Students are allowed 20 hours of work per week, which is not enough because of the increasing prices. We are going to write to the Canadian government to increase these hours either to 30 hours a week or unlimited, as students are struggling to survive in such difficult times,” he added.
Gill added that even if some students try to work beyond the permitted hours, employers exploit them and pay only $6-7 per hour against the wages of $16 per hour, as they cannot complain in that case. He also stated that the poor conditions of the students are pushing them into drug addiction, while many (students) are overwhelmed by feelings of depression, and they are trying to help them out in whatever way possible.
Gurdwaras are also supplying food and groceries to them every week. Vishal Khanna, co-founder of Sai Dham Food Bank in Toronto said that their food bank is supplying groceries to around 5,000 international students, apart from supplying food to seniors and people with disabilities. “Ours is the largest independent food bank as we provide door-to-door service, and nearly 25,000 people are getting groceries, fresh fruits, and vegetables from this bank,” he added.
While critics in Canada said one reason for the crunch is an immigration plan that seeks to attract more than 400,000 people a year, or 1% of the population, without addressing where newcomers will live, Fraser said, “The answer to our housing challenges is not to welcome fewer newcomers but to build more houses”.