Rise in Suicides Prompts Punjabi Students in Canada to Mobilize Against Wage Theft

Naujawan Support Network has helped international students and immigrant workers to win back over 300,000 Canadian dollars in wages

Rise in Suicides Prompts Punjabi Students in Canada to Mobilize Against Wage Theft
A Naujawan Support Network protest outside an employer’s workplace on July 9, 2022. (Credit: Naujawan Support Network)

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In 2017, Gaganpreet Kaur moved from Fatehgarh Sahib, a small pilgrim town in Punjab, India, to Ontario, Canada, to pursue a program in Human Resource Management at St. Clair College. To support herself financially, in May 2020, she got a job at PartsAvatar, an auto parts store in Mississauga, Ontario. She accepted the job at the then–minimum wage of 14 Canadian dollars ($10.46) per hour, with an agreement that her salary would increase after three months. Kaur performed a variety of tasks, including administrative work and manual labor that involved lifting heavy machinery and car parts, and worked overtime on some days, totaling over 15 hours. 

In October 2020, Ontario raised its minimum wage to CA$14.25 ($10.65) an hour, but PartsAvatar did not increase her wages, alleged Kaur, who continued to work for CA$14 ($10.46) per hour until April 2021, when her pay was finally increased to the new minimum wage. On September 18, 2021, her manager instructed her to not come to work following complaints from colleagues that Kaur was taking longer than usual breaks and skipping work.

After a heated back and forth over the allegations of “time theft,” Kaur decided to resign. The company told her that they would rescind their letter of employment in support of Kaur’s application for Permanent Residency (PR) in Canada. Kaur felt stuck. After spending her family’s life savings on her education and working at PartsAvatar for over a year, Kaur might have to pack her bags and return to India to start all over again.

It was then that she came across Naujawan Support Network (“naujawan” means “youth” in Punjabi), a group of international students and young workers that organizes against exploitation at the workplace. She began attending NSN’s meetings in January 2022, and later joined the group and decided to take action against her former employer. At first, NSN sent letters to the company demanding the CA$9,689.14 ($7,242.20) in wages that they owed her. But the owner and manager of PartsAvatar refused to engage with them. 

The NSN group then employed their time-tested strategies of public confrontation and social boycott. They uploaded photos and videos on Instagram and Twitter calling PartsAvatar’s owners “chor,” or thieves, and demanded they pay Kaur her wages and apologize for threatening her immigration status. Their supporters also shared Kaur’s story on the company’s Google reviews page, which in turn affected the company’s star ratings and reputation in the community. At the same time, they filed a complaint with the Ontario Ministry of Labor. 

In October 2022, the Ministry ruled that PartsAvatar owed Kaur CA$8,800.53 ($6,577.12) in unpaid wages, vacation pay, overtime pay, public holiday pay, and compensation for threatening her. PartsAvatar paid the full amount in January 2023. 

Naujawan Support Network was conceived in June 2021, at a time when there was a disturbing rise in suicides by international students in Canada. The group’s first members felt inspired by the mobilization they witnessed during the farmers’ protests in India, which forced the Indian government to back down and repeal three contentious farm laws. Seeing the success of farmers and farm workers in India, these students and young workers in Canada decided to address what they saw as the biggest problems plaguing their community — despair in international students, poverty and suicides — with one of major causes being exploitation at the workplace, which pushes students into poverty and desperation. 

International students in Canada bring CA$21 billion (almost $16 billion) into the economy each year, according to an investigation by The Walrus, a nonprofit news publication in Canada. A 2021 report by One Voice Canada, a nonprofit supporting vulnerable migrants, stated that a sizable proportion of international students comes from Punjab, and that most of them belong to low- or modest-income families. “The motivation for these families to have their child pursue an expensive Canadian education is to improve the family’s economic situation,” says the report. A student visa to Canada is also a ticket to escape the severe unemployment and drug crisis in Punjab. Punjabis see migrating to Canada — where Punjabi-Canadians account for roughly 2.6% of the population, and Punjabi is the fourth-most-spoken language — as one of their few ways out. 

In their report, One Voice Canada said that “international student suicides have become a disturbing trend in the country.” 

“This mirrors the international suicide problem in Australia for the last decade. The economic impact of COVID-19 seems to have only exacerbated these problems,” the report said, adding that the rise in suicide cases was due to a number of factors, including “rampant fraud and corruption in the student recruitment industry,” high tuition fees and an “underground economy” in which students work illegally and are “taken advantage of by employers.” There have been several reports in local media highlighting this trend and the financial and emotional distress faced by international students in Canada. 

In 2021, after noticing a startling rise in suicides, an Ontario-based funeral-home company launched a mental health support group for international students. Speaking at a webinar in 2021, the then–High Commissioner of India to Canada, Ajay Bisaria, said that eight international students from India had died by suicide in 2020 and 2021. Writing for the Vancouver Sun in 2019, journalist Douglas Todd, who covers migration, quoted data shared by the British Columbia Coroners Service: at least 15 international students had taken their own lives between 2013 and 2018 in the province.

Though comprehensive data for suicides by international students is not available in Canada, approximately 12 people die by suicide each day in the country, and around 4,500 every year. The government also said that suicide is the second leading cause of death among youth and young adults between 15 to 34 years of age. 

NSN member Simran Kaur Dhunna said that, due to their precarious status as noncitizens, students are regularly exploited at their workplace. Like Kaur, many of these students are either underpaid or are compelled to work long, grueling hours, in violation of Canada’s employment laws and customs. While many organizations help organize migrant workers and international students to create better laws, Naujawan Support Network has successfully organized international students to fight against exploitation at the workplace and win back over CA$300,000 in wages.  

In 2018, Satinder Kaur Grewal, 23, was one of the many students who immigrated to Canada in hopes of a better future. Grewal had enrolled in a two-year diploma course in Web design at Montreal College and was excited to start a new chapter in her life. Soon enough, reality struck. Canada was expensive, and the meager monthly allowance her family sent wasn’t enough. If she were to survive in this new country, she would need to get a job. 

In the spring of 2020, shortly after the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, she approached an Indian restaurant she frequented, Chat Hut, and asked the owners if they were hiring. They said they were but could only pay her CA$60 ($45) for a whole day’s work, which was significantly lower than the CA$14 ($10.46) per-hour minimum wage requirement in Ontario. In return, they promised they would help with her application to become a permanent resident in Canada. Grewal, who had struggled to find other jobs because of the pandemic, agreed to take up the offer. If she were to hire a lawyer to file for permanent residency status, it would cost around CA$3,000 ($2,250).

At Chat Hut, Grewal held multiple roles — cook, server, cashier and cleaner — and often worked 12–16 hours a day. In December 2020, when it was time for Grewal to start preparing her permanent residency application, her employer backed out and refused to help her. “Work with us for another year and we’ll see what to do with you,” Grewal remembers them telling her. She was furious. But, as an international student and noncitizen, there was little she could do. She also worried that, if she spoke out, her employer might file a complaint and try to have her deported. 

When Grewal’s employer refused to help with the permanent resident application, she left her job at Chat Hut and began searching for other options. She came across NSN’s page on Instagram, messaged them and soon they began a campaign against the owners. After a few attempts at settling the matter out of court, Grewal filed a complaint with the Ontario Ministry of Labour. Four months later, she won. The Labour Ministry found Chat Hut guilty of wage theft, and Grewal received CA$16,495 ($12,327) in unpaid wages, the highest amount won by a student though NSN’s campaigns. “This is the rightful compensation for my hard work,” she told New Lines. “Unless we speak up, the exploitation is bound to go on.” 

Similarly, Rohit Uppal, 22, worked for Al-Madina Halal Meat and received CA$10,071 ($7,526) in compensation from his employer after NSN filed a complaint against his employer with the Ministry. Uppal recalls his time with Al Madina as one of the hardest in his life. Working long, grueling hours for less than minimum wage, Uppal says he was close to taking his life after the employer fired him for getting into an accident, refusing to pay his remaining wages and threatening to deport him. After he found NSN, however, his life changed. Not only did he win back his stolen wages, he also found a community. 

Uppal says NSN has been so successful partly because of their tactic of social boycott, which involves public protests in front of an employer’s business or home, putting posters in their neighborhoods, organizing boycotts of their business, exposing them on social media and criticizing them on radio. In Grewal’s case, the campaign against Chat Hut involved sending the owners a letter with the specifics of how much they owed her and an opportunity to resolve the matter privately. But when the owners refused to even talk to NSN, they organized a 100-people protest outside the restaurant. The protest was covered by two national news channels in Canada, bringing notoriety to a once-obscure establishment. 

Most of these employers run small businesses, and they often belong to the same Punjabi-Canadian community as their workers. Hence, the strategy of social boycott gets attention and serves as a warning to other employers. However, protesting outside homes led to some employers filing police cases and defamation cases against NSN, of which three are currently ongoing. 

Since they are small-time employers, one could argue that exposing them publicly, especially if they have expressed remorse and repaid wages, could be unethical. However, Dhunna says that, if employers ultimately pay their workers, NSN informs the public about it through their social media channels, but it does not delete the previous posts, which may be considered defamatory, because they serve as “a documentation of NSN’s struggles and campaigns.” 

“Moreover, even if workers receive the wages that were rightfully theirs, what about the emotional, financial and mental turmoil the worker went through? That has a lasting effect and money doesn’t compensate for it,” says Dhunna. 

While Kaur, Grewal and Uppal have become members of the organization, many student workers move on after receiving their wages. Dhunna says they now try to make expectations clear to prospective members from the outset: they ask them to support other workers, participate in future protests and stay connected with the organization even after their personal campaign has ended. 

In September last year, the group organized a “mela” (fair) that brought together members of the Punjabi-Canadian community, trade unions and other student organizations at White Spruce Park in Brampton, Ontario. They wanted to celebrate their work and disseminate information about the legal rights and responsibilities of  noncitizen workers. The event started with an “ardaas” (prayer) by a Sikh religious group, followed by plays and music performances. From balloon stalls, turban-tying stands to multiple tug-of-war matches, there was something for people of all ages at the event. 

“Organizing is difficult, exhausting and occasionally demoralizing work,” said Dhunna when I met her at the fair. In addition to confronting employers, it’s important for NSN to make space to connect with one another and find joy and a sense of community, she added. 

“There’s a reason why we’re fighting against wage theft. … It’s to have more time and means for leisure and joy.”

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