Todd: Clever film brings home exploitation of foreign students in Canada

Opinion: Shubham Chhabra’s short comedy-drama, Cash Cows, centres on mistreatment by employers.

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Vancouver filmmaker Shubham Chhabra throws a lot into his short movie Cash Cows about international students from India stressing to make a go of it in Canada.

There’s the student, Rohit Sharma, whose boss in Canada doesn’t intend to pay him because he thinks he’s doing him a favour. There are the five male international students sharing one small basement suite in Surrey because rents are extreme. There is confusion about handing over up to $45,000 to dubious immigration consultants, but still needing jobs as security guards and pizza-makers.

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Being a foreign student while working in well-off Canada, en route to obtaining prized status as a permanent resident, isn’t exactly “living the dream,” even though one character in the film claims that it is.

Cash Cows is fictional but based on the experiences of Chhabra, who came to B.C. in 2015, as well as his closest friends from India, source of Canada’s largest cohort of international students.

The film sets its dramatic-comedy tone from the get-go, with opening images of unsuspecting cows being ground down and devoured as juicy hamburger or steaks.

While international students face multiple stresses in Canada, including extreme tuition fees and often shoddy educations, Cash Cows highlight the way they’re exploited by employers. It’s a problem that has been spreading since the federal Liberal government increased the number of international students in Canada to 1.3 million from 225,000 over the last decade.

The pivotal scene in Cash Cows, which has been shown at the Vancouver Asian Film Festival and won an award for best screenplay, features a foul-mouthed boss, Jaspreet Singh, excoriating Rohit for daring to expect to actually be paid for working more than six months as a night security guard at his car dealership, called Brown Brothers.

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‘I’m doing you a favour. Why the f–k do you expect everything for free?” shouts the boss, who has agreed to sponsor Rohit for permanent resident status. The employer warns the student that if he asks too many questions he could have him deported. No longer naïve, Rohit realizes he has to endure indentured labour.

Cash Cows is fundamentally about how some employers, and in some ways politicians and educational institutions, are treating foreign students and other temporary residents as “commodities rather than as a sustainable human resource,” Chhabra said.

While the filmmaker personally feels it’s a “privilege” to have studied at Langara College and now be working as an assistant director for the TV series Family Law, he wants his short film, and a longer documentary scheduled for release this spring, to help viewers understand the spectrum of experiences of international students.

He’s aware an untold number of employers are taking advantage of foreign students, whose families back home, like his, will often sacrifice a great deal so their offspring can gain a foothold in Canada.

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In India, the vision of getting into Canada on a study visa “is super-idealized in movies, TV shows and music videos,” Chhabra said. While unpleasant truths are sometimes mentioned in India’s media, most young people fly to Canada with incredible optimism.

Reality can be shocking for many, Chhabra says, “despite Canada being one of the best countries in the world.” Exploitive employers in Canada have many schemes, including not paying student employees at all, or expecting them to repay some of their salary.

‘I wanted to make something light-hearted, yet grounded in reality, with a little message,’ says Shubham Chhabra, director of Cash Cows. sun

“One of my friends was stuck in a seven-year-employment scam, where he was paying back almost 30 per cent of his paycheque.” He did so, Chhabra said, because the boss had promised to sponsor him as an immigrant.

“It’s 100 per cent illegal,” said Chhabra. When the friend obtained permanent residency, “he quit the job the first day he could. He got his trucker’s licence, which is what he wanted to do, and he’s now super-happy, making real money, working hard.”

Chhabra’s own story inspired the key conflict depicted in Cash Cows. The manager at a fast-food outlet he was working for in Vancouver was finding convoluted excuses to underpay him, alleging he was in training. Chhabra challenged him.

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“He gave me this long spiel about how grateful I should be. And I went back to work,” Chhabra said.

Another moment in Cash Cows is based on the experience that one of his friends had as a security guard. The student, already unpaid, was forced by his boss to come up with the money to compensate for a vandal smashing an automobile window with a rock while he was on night duty.

In addition to the scams featured in Cash Cows, reports are arising of many others in Canada. They include employers taking secret kickbacks from foreign students and other non-permanent residents to create jobs for them, some of which don’t really exist. Another controversy emerged this week, with news of a 650 per cent increase in five years in the number of foreign students applying for refugee status.

In the midst of all the schemes and conflicts, which are dividing opinion among Canada’s South Asian population, Chhabra said he hopes Cash Cows helps viewers understand the different ways young people on study visas are trying to survive and prosper in a new land.

He intended to do so while avoiding heavy-handedness: “I wanted to make something light-hearted, yet grounded in reality, with a little message.”

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One way the film has a bit of fun is by bringing alive the way many foreign students end up crammed together in tiny basement suites.

That is exactly what Chhabra and his friends had to do. For a long time Chhabra and two male friends shared the same double bed, sleeping in shifts and sometimes at the same time. While Chhabra’s Canadian girlfriend has described the practice as “so weird,”  he says it’s considered fine in Indian culture.

More seriously, in the past year Chhabra worries the national discussion of migration in Canada has hit a “tipping point,” where non-permanant residents such as foreign students are now being seen in a more pessimistic light, particularly in regard to contributing to pressure on housing and rental prices.

And while Chhabra wants to fight against the negativity, in some ways he can understand why in January Immigration Minister Marc Miller imposed a two-year cap on study permits.

“We see all the negatives, like everyone else,” said Chhabra. “And we want to work together to make it better.”

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