S-Trip accused of exploiting volunteer 'trip leaders' who work long hours

"We don’t get paid enough," says a former trip leader amid a CBC Toronto investigation into the employment practices of Canadian student travel company I Love Travel.

Labour lawyers slam company's practice of compensating trip leaders with honorariums

Kirsten Josling, 18, attended an S-Trip excursion to Cuba this summer. She told CBC Toronto about students' heavy drinking on the trip, and expressed concern over the authority of the young trip leaders. 'The bottom of the totem pole is basically just volunteers,' she said. According to internal S-Trip documents obtained by CBC Toronto, that's exactly how trip leaders are classified. (CBC)

Drunk teenagers smashing plates on their heads. A teenage boy with head injuries after jumping off a two-storey balcony. A teenage girl having suicidal thoughts.

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.

According to a 2017 posting on I Love Travel's online "job board," trip leaders are "the face and representation" of the company with S-Trip's young attendees. The role is referred to as a part-time position and involves potentially working long hours and evening shifts as "the main point of contact" for passengers and assisting with the execution of activities, excursions and parties — one of various positions framed as a potential "#JobofaLifetime."

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 classification, but said the company abides by all provincial laws and covers volunteers' travel expenses, including airfare, excursions and room and board.

Still, it's a situation several labour law experts say could be exploiting young workers, misclassifying employees and violating Ontario labour laws.

"I was promised a job of a lifetime," said Diane. "And it was none of that."

'Out of control'

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 travelling with an I Love Travel brand. After she enjoyed her first experience travelling with S-Trip affiliate Breakaway Tours to Quebec City in 2015, Josling decided to help recruit her teenage peers for a March Break trip the following year.

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 "mickey" of vodka — a 375-millilitre bottle — while a uniform-clad trip leader watched.

"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.

Students pose during an S-Trip in Mexico in 2016. The brand is owned by Canadian company I Love Travel. (Submitted by Henry Grover)

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.

I Love Travel's job board for brands like S-Trip encourages young people to find their #JobOfALifetime, according to the S-Trip website. (Lauren Pelley/CBC News)

'We don't get paid enough'

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" travelling with S-Trip could be.

"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 well, and said she encountered drunk students smashing plates over their heads and jumping off two-storey balconies at the resort. One of those students injured his head and needed stitches, she said.

One student also cut her forearm, while another spoke of having suicidal thoughts, Kiara alleged.

S-Trip's marketing materials emphasize safety, supervision and the opportunities to volunteer and experience a different culture, multiple YouTube videos depict binge drinking and hard partying, a 2017 CBC Marketplace investigation revealed. (YouTube)

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 abides by all provincial laws, company says

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 Love Travel stressed the safety of the trips and the legal nature of the trip leader role.

In an emailed statement, Jay Hamilton, vice-president of talent and strategy for I Love Travel, said trip leaders are volunteers, which is clearly stated on all official materials and signed contracts.

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 co-ordinator, staff and volunteer co-ordinator, and a trip mentor and program director.

"We work closely with labour lawyers to ensure we abide by all provincial laws, statutes or guidelines, regardless of role," Hamilton said. "Our labour lawyers have advised that our volunteers are not employees and S-Trip's practice is not in breach of the Employment Standards Act or any other provincial statute."

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, room and board — is roughly $2,000.

But several labour lawyers who viewed S-Trip's internal documents say the brand's practices are concerning.

CBC Marketplace: S-Trip vs. YouTube

6 years ago
Duration 0:44
S-Trip promises that student trips are safe and supervised, and governed by a student code of conduct. Here’s how the company’s marketing compares with what students post on YouTube.

Trip leaders 'denied a minimum wage,' says labour lawyer

S-Trip's trip leader positions come with a set of duties and responsibilities that resemble a job description, Toronto-based labour lawyer Andrew Langille said, but the honorarium is far below Ontario's minimum wage — which is currently $11.40, or $10.70 for students.

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 counsellors before any campers arrive, the report notes.

Multiple 2017 job postings for Ontario summer camp counsellors and other similar roles also list an hourly wage. MPS Camps in Toronto states the pay rate for camp counsellors is from $11.75 to $13 an hour; the YMCA of Greater Toronto states that day camp counsellors make $11.40 an hour; and lifeguards and water safety instructors at Adventure Camp in Mount Albert, Ont., make $12 an hour, according to recent postings.

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 volunteers, but are paid positions which are compensated through a daily or hourly rate.

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."

Toronto-based labour lawyer Andrew Langille said the trip leader honorarium is far below Ontario's minimum wage — which is currently $11.40, or $10.70 for students. (CBC)

Joshua Mandryk, a labour lawyer at Goldblatt Partners and the Ontario director of the Canadian Intern Association, said work for a private-sector employer that is connected to its central business operation should be paid according to the Employment Standards Act, in the "absence of a statutory exclusion."

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 S-Trip's practices, something the ministry confirmed it has done before.

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 S-Trip's practices are legal in Ontario, ministry spokesperson Gloria Yip's response was that "only an employment standards officer can make a determination about whether or not the [Employment Standards Act, 2000] applies in a particular circumstance." The ministry launches investigations on individual complaints through the claims process, she added.

"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 labour lawyers who spoke out about the brand's employment practices remain concerned about the long hours and challenging situations faced by I Love Travel's "volunteers."

"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."


Lauren Pelley

Senior Health & Medical Reporter

Lauren Pelley covers health and medical science for CBC News, including the global spread of infectious diseases, Canadian health policy, and pandemic preparedness. Her 2020 investigation into COVID-19 infections among health-care workers won best in-depth series at the RNAO Media Awards. Contact her at:

With files from Michelle Cheung, Nicole Brockbank, Muriel Draaisma, CBC's Marketplace