Mar 26, 2024

Budget fails to fund enough supports for newcomers to BC

By Newcomers funding banner

New immigrants, temporary foreign workers and international students are bearing the brunt of the blame for the housing crisis and strain on public services.

The real issue, however, is the provincial budget failing to keep up with demand to match the increased growth of newcomers and international students to BC.

Simultaneously, this demographic is suffering from inadequate access to decent housing and social supports.

BC is increasingly dependent on international migration to fill critical labour shortages and subsidize the operational costs of public services through low wages and high tuition, while offering no new investments in Budget 2024 to support and protect this growing population. This is unjust and counter to the provincial government’s racial equity goals.

The growing need for newcomer supports

BC’s population grew by a record 3% between 2022 and 2023, the highest increase since the 1970s and international migration is without question a major driver of this growth. There was a 42% increase in international migration to BC this past year, with a net of more than 157,000 people  in 2023 moving to BC from outside Canada, up from about 110,500 in 2022. The number of net new foreign non‑permanent (temporary) residents in BC was up 59%  to more than 107,000 new temporary status residents compared with about 63,000 in 2022. Non-permanent residents now make up 8.2% of BC’s population up from  4.9% just two years ago and 2.2% in 2016.

While population growth can put a strain on housing supply and social services, this growth also contributes to higher economic activity and increased revenues for the province, including through income taxes. International migrants are expected to fill 46% of job vacancies between 2024-2033, filling key gaps in our job markets and contributing their fair share of taxes. 

Our Understanding Precarity in BC survey found that recent immigrants are more likely to be in non-standard, or precarious, employment: “over 60% of recent immigrants were in non-standard employment, compared to half of non-immigrants.” Statistics Canada data show that recent immigrants and non-permanent residents especially are far more likely to be in poverty than non-immigrants (15.7% and 41.3% respectively compared with 7.9% of non-immigrants). And  24% of recent immigrants and 33% of non-permanent residents find themselves in unsuitable housing compared with 8% of non-immigrants.

In addition to the importance of increasing funding for housing, health and social services more broadly to support BC’s growing population, increased investments in both worker and settlement supports are essential for the people that come to live, work and study in this province. This year’s budget, however, saw no additional funding allocated for these services. Given the marked growth in international migration this year, the 2024 budget fails to keep pace with the growth let alone rectify the decades of underfunding that contribute to this inequality.

Increased investments in both worker and settlement supports are essential for the people that come to live, work and study in this province.

Last year’s budget made only small strides in this regard, allocating $58 million over three years to expand newcomer supports and expedite recognition of foreign credentials. The funded settlement and integration support services encompassed a range of essential services from orientation, work permitting and permanent residency application assistance to community connections, short-term crisis support and trauma counselling for refugees.

Advocates had hoped to see a sufficient increase in funding this year to double the capacity of the credential recognition and upgrading programs. There is also a need for drastic increases to worker supports such as the Employment Standards Branch and WorkSafeBC, which lack the resources to properly address the challenges faced by this predominantly racialized and disproportionately precariously employed workforce. This includes challenges posed by the gig economy and the temporary foreign worker program. These bodies must expand their capacity to provide workers with faster resolutions and implement proactive investigations to prevent abuses. The limited funding allocation to WorkSafeBC and climate disaster prevention together place migrant farmworkers in a particularly precarious position ahead of this year’s inevitable fire season.

Funding for supports and services that keep pace with population growth combined with fair wages and equal status for all workers in the province will ensure that rather than being exploited as a pool of cheap labour, newcomers are well supported as they come to fill legitimate gaps in our labour market.

International students are subsidizing post-secondary education

In January 2024, the federal government announced a cap on international student visas that would see a potential 35% reduction in new international students for BC’s post-secondary institutions. This announcement raised questions about the impact such a cap would have on public post-secondary education (PSE) in BC because of university and colleges’ growing reliance on exorbitant international student tuition fees to make up for chronically insufficient public funding.  

International students make up nearly a third of the province’s post-secondary student body, approximately 175,000 out of 545,000 post-secondary students. The provincial government recently promised measures to clamp down on private institutions’ exploitation of international students, yet even for the 82,000 international students at public institutions, fees are still extremely high. International student tuition fees for undergraduate programs are on average 5.5 times the cost of domestic tuition fees at public institutions in the province, with an average annual fee of $35,266 for international students compared to $6,283 for domestic students.

Altogether, Budget 2024 reflects an intention to maintain public post-secondary institutions’ exploitative reliance on international students. While the budget includes a $500 million increase for capital spending and an $845 million increase for operational costs over the next three years, this funding is to expand physical capacity and to maintain service delivery to keep up with an overall growing student body. This is not enough to provide post-secondary institutions the funding they need to reduce their reliance on international student fees and relieve international students of the uneven financial burden placed on them. As a share of public universities’ total revenues, government funding decreased by 8% while student fees increased by more than 12% in the same decade.

The provincial government recently promised measures to clamp down on private institutions’ exploitation of international students.

Post-secondary student associations and faculty associations have emphasized the need for an updated funding model that addresses PSEs reliance on unreasonable international student tuition rates, increasing funding to offset tuition fee reductions and extending the 2% cap on domestic tuition increases to include international tuition.

The federal cap on student visas was touted as a means to address the housing crisis. Instead of challenging the narrative that international students are to blame for housing shortages, Premier David Eby requested that the federal government reconsider its cap because of the impact it will have on sectors with labour shortages, such as early childhood education, nursing and construction. 

This approach to the international student program marks a concerning shift from a knowledge exchange initiative to a labour market supplement, exploiting international students in a manner akin to the temporary foreign workers program. This model is then extractive on two fronts: through undervalued labour and high tuition fees. This benefits the province economically without offering adequate support for the students it draws in. With international students arriving predominantly from countries such as India and China, these policies only aggravate the existing social inequalities these students face as racialized people in Canada.

Increasing funding to public sector services to improve wages and working conditions for critical roles such as early childhood educators would not only help to fill labour shortages by making careers in these fields more tenable, but would also prevent international students from being leveraged as a means to suppress wage growth in these fields. Ensuring fair compensation for all workers, regardless of their status, is crucial for maintaining the integrity and quality of these vital social services. It would also help dismantle the undervaluing of care work on the one hand, and racialized labour on the other.

Ensuring fair compensation for all workers is crucial for maintaining the integrity and quality of these vital social services.

If there are genuine labour shortages, the government needs to increase funding for the needed education and training to meet current and future labour market demands. The $480 million Future Ready action plan announced in 2023 provides grants of up to $3,500 for post-secondary job training programs, but there remains a large gap between the value of these grants and the costs of training. It would be good to see initiatives to fully fund tuition for in-demand job programs, with a clear path to permanent residency for international students so we can keep these skills in BC. 

The Ministry of Post-Secondary Education and Future Skills has promised to bring  transparency to international student tuition fees, which is a step in the right direction. But it is long past time to revive the PSE funding review—which has been stalled for two years—to ensure that international students are protected from exploitation and fairly compensated for the cultural and economic benefits they bring to BC. 

BC increasingly relies on international migration to fill critical gaps in our social services such as early childhood education to bring $10-a-day child care to all in the province, or in healthcare to ensure equal access to timely quality care. We must therefore ensure that we are investing fairly in the people we rely on most. It is not enough to resist austerity, we must invest in protecting newcomers from exploitation in order to resist and reverse the undervaluing of racialized labour in BC.

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