Dozens of young customers hoping to go on working holidays say they were left stranded overseas by a company with an office in Vancouver, a joint investigation by CBC News and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation has found.
Many of the travellers, aged between 18 and 30, say they ended up with no job after buying a working holiday package from Global Work & Travel Co.
The international travel company sells working holiday and volunteer packages from its offices in Vancouver, London and Surfers Paradise, in Queensland, Australia.
Hayley Patterson, 22, of Toronto and Juliet Jackson, 22, of London met on arrival in Surfers Paradise earlier this year, expecting to start work right away.
They say that’s what the salespeople at Global Work & Travel suggested would happen if they booked the "get it all" package.
"They made it sound so easy, that you would pretty much walk off the plane into a job and it would all be great!" Jackson said.
But there was no job waiting for either of them upon arrival in Surfers Paradise. After a few days, the company told them one of its clients had four positions available and they had to get to Melbourne for a job interview, 1,700 kilometres away.
'I feel really ripped off'
Patterson and Jackson could not afford flights, so they bought tickets for a 23-hour bus ride to Melbourne. Patterson was shocked when the manager of Sea Salt, a sushi bar and fish-and-chips joint, delivered the bad news.
"He said he didn't know what Global Work & Travel was … He said he had already hired like a month ago."
Patterson was furious she had paid more than $1,500 Cdn on top of her plane ticket for a package she believed guaranteed a job, even though the contracts she and Jackson signed with Global Work & Travel only guarantee a "job opportunity."
"I feel really ripped off for it because the reason I paid for that most expensive package was the job thing," Jackson said.
Patterson said when she called Global Work & Travel to complain, an employee "said that we were lying and that we just didn't get there on time. And that that was our 'job opportunity' so they didn't have to pay for accommodation any more."
Under the contract, she said, the company agreed to pay her accommodation until the "job opportunity" occurred.
"I definitely after that knew we were scammed. Your heart kind of drops because you are like, 'Where am I going to sleep next week if I don't have the money, and I don't have a job?' " said Patterson, who said she had to make a humiliating call home to Canada to ask her parents for money.
Jackson said Global Work & Travel told her it was all her fault and claimed that because it took two days to get to Melbourne, the company would have already hired.
In an email, Global Work and Travel claimed Sea Salt was a "client." But the restaurant's manager said it has never had any arrangement with the company and did not have multiple vacancies at any point last year. The manager said the restaurant only post jobs on websites such as Gumtree, Australia’s version of Craigslist.
Patterson said when she started looking for a job on her own, she noticed an outdated employment ad for the same restaurant.
"We found that sushi bar job on Gumtree, so I think they just look on there for jobs and send people there without telling the employers that they are sending some of their clients."
Jackson said she partly blames herself for falling for the sales pitch for her first trip outside of the United Kingdom.
"I do feel tricked by them," she said. "It's the slight differences in the way they describe things. 'You'll get a job. And you will have interviews before you even leave,' but actually it's a job 'opportunity.' And that's a really vague word."
Patterson said several other travellers she "met in the hostels felt the exact same way we did. I think we had about 12 other people there with us, and they had all not received jobs."
After two months of trying to get work, they both gave up and went home.
"There were times just in public, walking down the street crying," Jackson recalled on a recent visit to Canada to see Patterson.
Company denies allegations
They both complained, but in an email from the company, Patterson was told she would get nothing if she posted a "bad review" of her experience online. She didn't, and they both received a partial refund.
In a statement, Global Work & Travel told CBC, "The Global Work & Travel Co. prides itself on being the global leader in working holiday and gap year programs, and we believe your allegations are based on false and inaccurate information."
The company is privately owned by Pierre Himmelmann, his wife, Caryl, and their son Jurgen.
Jurgen Himmelmann said Global Work & Travel does not guarantee anyone a job and cannot "control the customer's interview performance or make a decision for the employer."
"We provide a service, not an end result, and it is the customer's responsibility to secure the job."
He said they "have never sent someone to an employer that we don't work with and every employer we work with is vetted."
Customers say promises not kept
Stacey Kosmerly and fellow psychology PhD student Amanda Stiller each paid Global Work & Travel nearly $6,000, including flights, for a package that promised a volunteer experience at a "girls shelter" in Sri Lanka.
In a complaint filed with the company, Kosmerly says the company failed to pick them up at the airport, and the accommodations were disappointing.
"It was a rundown house. They had over 40 volunteers squished into little bunk beds... and not at all what we expected given the amount of money we paid to go," Kosmerly said from her home in Ottawa.
But the biggest shock came the next day, Kosmerly said.
Global Work & Travel had emailed two months before departure that "everything has been 100 per cent confirmed and set for your … work in the girls shelter," Kosmerly said.
However, Kosmerly said, "The women's shelter had been closed for over a year and in fact didn't exist anymore and there was no similar kind of programs there at all."
Kosmerly and Stiller said they were furious, because they had collected donations to pay for the trip based on what Kosmerly calls "false advertising."
"We were doing this trip purely out of wanting to build clinical skills, and the only we reason we chose such a far destination was for this program," which involved working with victims of sexual abuse.
Instead of volunteering, they say they spent their time visiting a hospital, an orphanage and an elephant sanctuary.
In a statement to CBC, the director of Global Work & Travel, Jurgen Himmelmann, said, "Unannounced to us, the supplier had apparently just stopped running the project the girls had booked."
Himmelmann said his company had no record of any complaint or refund request about the Sri Lanka program, and claimed the clients had happily switched to another volunteer program.
But Kosmerly shared two emails with CBC that were written in July and August requesting reimbursement.
After CBC asked more questions, Himmelmann now says their file "is still open and was missed when an employee checked our records...We agree that a portion of the two women's fees should be reimbursed."
Negative reviews missing
Kosmerly is one of a dozen customers of Global Work & Travel who have told CBC news their attempts to warn others by posting reviews on the company's Facebook page disappeared.
"Only the positive comments are being shared on their Facebook page," Kosmerly said.
The company said it does not remove all negative reviews.
"If someone expresses their dissatisfaction, we will openly respond and handle it and leave it publicly viewable," Himmelmann said.
"Like all companies online, we reserve the right to request removal of postings that are defamatory."
But CBC could not find a single negative review on the company's website, Facebook page or YouTube Channel.
The company offers clients vouchers of between $50 and $500 if they post positive reviews.
CBC has obtained an email written from Jurgen Himmelmann's email account in January that outlines how unhappy clients' complaints are hidden on Facebook and how clients who post bad reviews on other websites will not get refunds.
Global Work & Travel says it deals with 5,000 to 10,000 travellers a year and claims only five per cent of customers file complaints.
The company provided CBC with 20 reference letters from employers who use its services to recruit staff, including several hotels, a chain of steakhouses and three travel associations. The employers all confirmed their affiliations with Global Work & Travel independently to CBC News.
It claims to work with 1,000 Canadian employers to fill their seasonal staffing needs.
The company points to its A- rating with the Better Business Bureau. However, the bureau has received 13 complaints in the last year.
In Australia, the Office of Fair Trading for the state of Queensland says it investigated 22 complaints from customers who alleged the company "misrepresented employment opportunities" and decided to refer the case to the attorney general of Queensland.
In a statement, Justice officials in Queensland confirm they are investigating Global Work & Travel and whether it has contravened the Private Employment Agents Act, which says fees cannot be charged for finding or helping a worker find a job.
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