Drunk teenagers smashing plates on their heads. A teenage boy with head injuries after jumping off a
Those are just a few of the situations former S-Trip student travel package "trip leaders" say they encountered during trips with Canadian company I Love Travel in 2017, all while working long hours as volunteers.
"It's just not a situation that I would want anyone to go through — not even my worst enemy," said Diane, 22, a former trip leader whose name has been changed because her contract prevents her from speaking to the media.
But a CBC Toronto investigation has found that, while these college-age students and recent graduates are explicitly told to expect 14-hour workdays, they don't receive a paycheque for doing so.
Instead, trip leaders are called "volunteers" in internal documents and given an honorarium of $150 to $300, depending on how many trips they attend. S-Trip confirmed the role's volunteer
Still, it's a situation several
"I was promised a job of a lifetime," said Diane. "And it was none of that."
Earlier this year, S-Trip came under fire from attendees and their parents after a CBC Marketplace investigation into the heavy drinking among students on the trips.
Following that investigation, three recent S-Trip participants chose to speak to CBC Toronto, including two former trip leaders and an attendee, 18-year-old Kirsten Josling.
Josling shared her experience earlier this summer, soon after returning from an S-Trip trip to Cuba, which marked her third time
That's when she found the student trips could sometimes get "a little bit out of control."
One alleged incident from the 2016 Quebec City trip stuck out in Josling's memory: She recalled one of her fellow attendees, a 16-year-old boy, chugging a "
"It kind of opened my eyes to the fact that these staff members weren't really staff members at all," Josling said.
As you work your way down the staff hierarchy, she said, "the bottom of the totem pole is basically just volunteers."
According to internal S-Trip documents obtained by CBC Toronto, that's exactly how trip leaders are classified by I Love Travel.
A 2017 handbook provided to trip leaders attending a summer trip at a Cuban resort states that they can "expect to work 14-hour days."
Another document, a "Destination Staff Manual," outlines the honorarium structure for trip leaders, which is meant to "mitigate the expenses [they] may encounter while volunteering with I Love Travel."
For each of their first two trips, trip leaders can expect to make $150 per trip, which can last five to 10 days. That goes up to $225 per trip for their third and fourth trips, and $300 per trip for their fifth trip and beyond, according to the document.
A trip leader contract obtained by CBC Toronto stipulates that $80 of the honorarium for a team member's first trip is used to pay for their S-Trip uniform. That document also specifies that the role is a volunteer position, meaning trip leaders are not "receiving a wage or salary."
"I understand that I am engaged as a volunteer providing services to the company, that I am not engaged as an employee, and that no employment relationship is established between myself and the company," the contract reads.
That's the same contract Diane signed when she landed a trip leader position for the summer 2017 season after a friend from school told her how "fun"
"It sounded like a fairytale," she said.
Her impression quickly changed. During her first trip to Cuba, Diane said she witnessed heavy drinking among the students, including some she claims were underage.
She also recalled one night where she and another trip leader cared for an intoxicated girl who was "completely passed out" in her room with a bucket by her head. No senior staff members were present, she added.
During an interview after her return, Diane said she wouldn't recommend S-Trip to anyone. Another former trip leader, Kiara — also not her real name — feels the same after her experience with the organization this year.
Kiara attended a summer trip to Cuba as
One student also cut her forearm, while another spoke of having suicidal thoughts, Kiara alleged.
In most cases, Kiara said, trip leaders are the team members dealing with these types of incidents directly, not higher-up staff. She outlined one night on the trip where she was the one who brought an intoxicated teenage girl back to her room, helped the girl shower and cleaned vomit out of the girl's hair.
Both Diane and Kiara said the one-day training session they received before their Cuba trips, which they said included discussions about passenger safety, excursions and role-playing through various possible scenarios, wasn't enough to prepare them.
That training also includes reading the "Destination Staff Manual," which stresses that things "can and WILL go wrong while on destination." It tells trainees that during medical or weather emergencies, they need to "be a true trip leader and keep [their] group composed."
"We don't get paid enough," Kiara said. "The trip leaders were hands-on with the students every day."
S-Trip was founded in 1976 as "Student Trip" by two high school teachers. The brand changed its name to S-Trip in 2001 and started expanding — opening offices in the Dominican Republic and Boston — and was named one of the fastest-growing companies in Canada by Canadian Business magazine for three years running, starting in 2011.
In response to recent CBC Toronto inquiries about the company's employment practices, a spokesperson for I
In an emailed statement, Jay Hamilton, vice-president of talent and strategy for I Love
He likened the role to "summer camp counsellors," and said they are not responsible for managing or resolving situations but are instead trained to "escalate" incidents to other highly trained team members who also attend the trips, including senior roles such as a hospital
"We work closely with
He also said the volunteers are given an honorarium based on their years of experience and their role on the trip, and their total compensation package — including their airfare, excursions,
Langille believes that's a violation of Ontario laws, including the Employment Standards Act.
"You can't have a volunteering situation in a for-profit business," he said. "It just doesn't fly."
In contrast, day camp counsellors and "trip leaders" in Ontario are typically paid rates close to or exceeding the province's minimum wage, according to a 2013 report by the Ontario Camps Association (OCA), while residential counsellors — who stay overnight — usually make less, coupled with compensation for their room and board.
OCA member camps also spend an average of roughly six days training their
Multiple 2017 job postings for Ontario summer camp
Senior staff members from two other Canadian student travel companies also told CBC Toronto their tour guide or trip leader roles for overseas trips are not classified as
Langille said the situation with S-Trip trip leaders is noticeably different from paid roles. "Essentially, these people are employees but are being treated as volunteers, and they're being denied a minimum wage and they're being denied protections," he said.
"At the end of the day, it places them in a very vulnerable situation, because they're being asked to take on a great deal of responsibility, but they're not being provided with any of the benefits that come from employment."
Joshua Mandryk, a
If positions are done as a co-op placement for a school credit, for instance, that would be acceptable, since those roles are excluded from the act, he said.
Both lawyers are calling on the Ministry of Labour to investigate
In 2014, the ministry received two complaints about hours of work and minimum wage regarding S-Trip, including one which resulted in an investigation, a spokesperson told CBC Toronto in an email.
But both cases have since been closed, and the ministry didn't provide further detail on what the complaints were about.
When asked if
"With respect to a volunteer, the fact that no wages are paid to the individual is not determinative of volunteer status, nor is the fact that is some form of payment made necessarily determinative of employee status," Yip wrote.
Some of the factors in whether or not someone is a "true volunteer" under the Employment Standards Act include the circumstances of how the arrangement came about and whether an economic imbalance between the two parties was a factor in structuring it.
S-Trip, according to the ministry, is not currently under investigation. Still, the former trip leaders and
"I went there for work, and that's exactly what it is — it's work, from when you wake up until you go to sleep," said Kiara.
"I would never staff with them again."