International graduates struggle to find work in COVID-19 job market, fulfill post-graduate work permits

·6 min read

Leading up to her graduation from Dalhousie University, Fatou Secka had her eyes on the prize: to find a job in her field and get one step closer to permanent residency in Canada.

“I was very hopeful of getting into the work field, getting more practical experience, applying myself ... and being part of an organization,” she told The Chronicle Herald.

“I was really looking forward to that.”

But after receiving a master's degree in civil engineering at the university in May, the international graduate from The Gambia has been job hunting nearly everyday to no avail.

“(A few days) ago, my alarm went off and I felt so anxious and so nervous and worried that I would be unable to find work,” she said.

Due to the economic fallout of COVID-19, thousands of international graduates in Canada like Secka are unable to find work and meet the requirements of their post-graduate work permits (PGWPs), according to Migrant Students United, an advocacy group for international students and graduates.

International graduates are eligible for time-restricted PGWPs that allow them to remain in Canada post-graduation and gain work experience here. If they complete a minimum of 12 to 24 months of work in certain skilled positions, they can then qualify for permanent residency.

While Secka has a three-year PGWP, some international graduates have shorter permits that are either set to expire before year’s end or have already expired, which has left them in a state of limbo, said Sarom Rho, an organizer for Migrant Students United.

“With the second wave of COVID-19 related job losses spiking all over Canada and the economic shutdown and economic impact of this, most migrant student workers don’t have access to these jobs,” said Rho.

“Even in the best of times, these jobs are difficult to get as migrant workers, but in the middle of a pandemic, when there’s a global economic shutdown, it’s nearly impossible.”

The federal government has allowed people with work, study and visitor permits that expired before Jan. 30 to “restore their status” until the end of the year if they stayed in Canada. But PGWPs are currently non-renewable, said Rho, so international graduates are unable to do so.

Migrant Students United delivered two petitions with thousand of signatures to federal Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino’s office this week, calling for changes to Canadian immigration rules surrounding PGWPs.

They’ve asked the federal government to make PGWPs renewable so former students can complete “realistic requirements” for permanent residency in the COVID-19 job market and to lower the threshold for gaining permanent residency by lowering points requirements and counting work that is part-time, in-school or in any occupation.

Rho said international graduates have made multiple sacrifices and poured thousands of dollars into education in Canada only to be faced with COVID-19 setbacks at no fault of their own.

During this “unprecedented crisis,” they’ve also contributed to Canada by working in the essential industries “that sustain our economy and our communities,” Rho added, but none of that work is counted toward their PGWPs.

“You’ll see that it’s migrant students who are working overnight stocking shelves in grocery stores, handling packages in warehouses, working in food service and retail and delivery,” she said.

John Paul Patrick Corpus is one of those international graduates.

Corpus completed a diploma in business intelligence analytics from Nova Scotia Community College and received his PGWP, which is valid for one year, in July.

He’s currently working as a sales associate at the Atlantic Superstore and as a data analyst with the federal government.

Although his work with the federal government counts toward his PGWP, Corpus said only 30 hours of the 37.5 hours he puts in each week are counted. This means he has to work straight through to July 2021, which is when his PGWP expires, in order to achieve the 1,560 hours required to satisfy the requirements of the permit, he said.

“It’s really pushed my work permit up to the very end,” said Corpus.

Corpus is concerned that he may lose his job with the federal government during the pandemic.

“I try to work as many hours as I can because you’ll never know if one day, all of a sudden, you lose your job and they don’t issue a permit or visa,” he said.

At his grocery store job, Corpus said many of his coworkers are also PGWP holders that are stuck in a similar state of uncertainty.

He said they all share the same sentiments: “Hopefully the government will give us at least another year once the pandemic stabilizes, because they should try to be reasonable. How can you find a job if there’s no job? Or how can you prove your work if there’s no grounds to prove your work?”

“We just study here and all of a sudden we’re kicked out of the country because, OK, your post-graduate work permit is expired. That’s so sad,” Corpus added.

As she continues to look for an engineering job, Secka said she’s trying her best to keep occupied by networking with people in her field and pursuing professional training to make herself “indispensable.” She’s also found work as a caregiver at the Shannex nursing home in Halifax and at the Dalhousie Writing Centre.

Secka encourages other international graduates to do the same.

“Although I have not been able to find work, I’ve been talking to people in my field and learning from them. So these are things you can do so you have something to look forward to in your day,” she said.

The Chronicle Herald reached out to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada to ask if the department is considering renewing expired or soon-to-expire PGWPs.

In an email statement, IRCC spokesperson Rémi Larivière said that with COVID-19 causing "significant disruptions," the federal government has taken steps to support international students "and we hope to help more of them make the transition to permanent residency." This includes the government's "ambitious" 2021-2023 immigration levels plan that creates more opportunities through Canada's economic immigration programs, he said.

According to Larivière, a person whose status will expire has "options to extend it before it does, and a period of time to restore their status if it does expire." He noted the period that temporary residents have to restore their status has been extended during the pandemic.

Larivière said the federal government has also "made it easier for former PGWP holders who had to maintain their legal status in Canada as a visitor to quickly start working for a new employer when they find a new job, and for those with employer-specific work permits to be able to quickly switch and start working for a new employer while their new (work permit) application is processed, cutting the delay on working for a new employer from 10 weeks to 10 days."

"We will continue to work closely with international students and the wider community to examine new ways to help international students thrive in this country," he added.

Noushin Ziafati, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Chronicle Herald