CHARLOTTETOWN — The 24-year-old Chinese man sits down at a living room table in Charlottetown, and begins to fill a page of legal-sized paper with diagrams and notes.
He is explaining life as an employee at two businesses set up under P.E.I.'s controversial business immigration system.
First, there was the trading company that required he pay high-priced rent of $1,500 for a small apartment belonging to the firm's owner, largely using up his $2,000 salary, he says, drawing arrows back and forth on the page.
He shows each bank transaction for the payments on his smart phone.
Then, there was the more recent job at a service firm, where the owner asked him to return about $500 monthly of his salary, he added, drawing a circle around the "two hours a day," to emphasize what he'd be returning in cash.
"When I refused, they just fired me," he said during an interview. "I felt angry about that. They promised me that I would be hired until December ... I need the job experience to apply (for Canadian permanent residency)."
Each job became a disillusioning blow for a young immigrant who couldn't rely on anyone back in China to send him cash. Without money, he ate modestly and took a graveyard shift job at a hotel to survive, he says. Recently, he says he found a job with a company that isn't asking him for money.
He is one of two international students interviewed by The Canadian Press who say the alleged abuses occurred at two different startup firms created by immigrants who came to the Island through the provincial nominee program since it was redesigned five years ago.
Both Chinese students spoke on the condition of anonymity, saying they feared losing their current jobs and ostracization in P.E.I.'s close-knit Asian community for speaking about a program that's brought hundreds to the Island's small but growing immigrant communities.
A third foreign student at the University of Prince Edward Island says he too gives a portion of his pay back to his employer, but does it willingly.
"If I don't give the money back to them, they will hire some local better workers, better than me, then I don't get to stay in P.E.I. anymore. I really like this place, therefore I am willing to do this with my employer," he wrote in an email.
All three foreign students say the practice is not isolated, and they have friends who have felt pressure to do the same thing — or have agreed to the practice.
"Lots of my classmates did this before and some are doing it now. But all for the same reason. We want our permanent residency card, to stay in Canada, have a better life and future. We can make those money back later," wrote the third student.
The Canadian Press is not naming the companies involved so as not to identify the employees.
The provincial nominee businesses are set up after the would-be immigrants commit to a minimum investment of $150,000 and annual spending of at least $75,000.
If companies operate for an agreed period of time, usually a year, the province may refund the $150,000 business escrow deposit.
The province has said the program has gradually helped attract a fresh wave of much-needed people to the Island and is resulting in some success stories, even if last year over half of all the 269 applicants forfeited their deposit and never opened a business.
However, critics have argued the system — referred to on the Island as "PNP" businesses — has a poor track record in retaining immigrants, and is encouraging business immigrants to use the Island as a side-door entry point to larger Canadian centres. Meanwhile, the province has collected $18 million last year in forfeitures — roughly equivalent to half of this year's increase in infrastructure spending.
The two students interviewed say one dark side to the program is that some entrepreneurs may look for various methods of reducing or retaining their required expenses — such as telling young people in need of work to hand back some of their wages.
For the second student, a young woman in her 20s who asked to be driven to a restaurant so she's not spotted speaking to a reporter, the practice of being asked for about $300 of her pay to be returned in cash was identical to the first student.
She said she had initially found work in the fast food sector after graduating from UPEI, but the money was better at a PNP company.
She said she agreed to give the owners back about $300 monthly, about an eighth of her wages, in cash, and that she felt sullied by the practice.
"I don't like this but it's hard for me to find another job at that time," she said.
At Robbie's Store on University Avenue in Charlottetown, Dexter Liu, an international student from China who recently graduated from UPEI, sits at the counter of a shop created under the provincial nominee program.
The shop sells an array of toy tops, along with an assortment of hardware items ranging from hammers to tape. Its wares are extremely similar to goods sold at a store next door owned by another provincial nominee.
Liu said he made five sales that day, about typical for most of his shifts.
"More and more Chinese people come here, and improve the economy of P.E.I. But some of provincial nominee program (candidates), to be honest, stay here for one year and then they move to another place," he said.
Asked about whether students must agree to give back their wages, he said that's not the case and that his boss gives him his full wages and pays for gas expenses for out-of-town trips.
"I don't think it's happening a lot. In my job, my boss gave me all of the money," he said during an interview.
Heath MacDonald, the minister of Economic Development in Prince Edward Island, said in an interview that his department wants to hear directly from any students experiencing the alleged abuses.
"We do have checks and balances in place," he said in an interview at his office.
A follow-up email from his office said: "We take these concerns very seriously and we have a number of safeguards in place. We will explore additional measures in the full knowledge that there is always room for review and improvement."
"Anyone with a concern or a complaint is encouraged to contact the Office of Immigration or the employment standards division. All complaints will be investigated and the identity of the individual will be protected until such time as their testimony may be required."
The department says it provides newcomers with information about Canadian laws, "so that they have a sense of what is right and what is wrong, and so they know what to do if they think they are being treated improperly."
Employment standards officers make presentations to the P.E.I. Association for Newcomers to Canada, and information brochures and posters in several languages are made available.
"We will be launching a 'tips' website with information on who to contact and what sort of information is required if a newcomer believes they are being treated improperly. That's in addition to what we already provide," said the email.
Paul Yin, the president of the Canadian Chinese Association of Prince Edward Island, said further actions need to be taken to ensure that students don't have to give their pay back to PNP owners.
"I think this is serious," said Yin, who came to the Island through the program and operated a flower shop.
"It's the first time he heard of that situation. It's no good. It's bad," he added, speaking through a translator.
"The Chinese P.E.I. Association can release this information ... to our community that this is against the law and nobody should do that again."
Abbey MacPherson, director of the Office of Immigration, said she has 10 employees who can play a role in enforcement and there are both announced and unannounced checks on the companies.
But for the young man who spoke to The Canadian Press, coming forward isn't an option until he has managed to obtain enough work to gain his permanent residency, and he feels safer from retributions.
In the meantime, "the oversight systems needs to be stricter," he said.
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Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press