The tourism operator sector during aurora season has exploded in Yellowknife – especially over the last two years – but labour leaders are saying it is coming with numerous complaints of poor working conditions.
CBC North broke a story recently of Shao Yu, 37, who arrived in Yellowknife from Toronto on Dec. 16 to work for tourism operator Aurora Story. Yu and two other employees complained about long hours, less than expected pay, poor housing conditions and extremely cold weather. They quit the company after 12 days.
The company in question denies the allegations and insists the trouble stems from unreliable employees who knew each other well and who are now trying to “defame” the company.
Following the CBC story, Yellowknifer was approached by another tourism worker with the same company who asked not to be named and not to be photographed. He identified himself as a 60-year-old man still working in Yellowknife.
The man, who has a family in Richmond, B.C., including a wife and two children, came to the NWT on Dec. 22 to work as a seasonal tour guide and driver. He has a Class 4 licence, speaks Mandarin and has worked as a driver and tour guide in the Vancouver area during his career.
He said he was hired as “an ethnic” to be able to appeal to the growing number of visitors to the city from China.
Similar to the Shao Yu story, he said he was led to believe he could make enough money to cover his mortgage and to support his teens who are are in high school and post-secondary school.
Due to what he described as poor working conditions, however, the worker said he was forced to quit 10 days after arriving on Jan. 2. He mentioned being housed in a home with young girls that made him uncomfortable and said he hadn’t been fully compensated as he expected.
“I quit because I can’t stand it anymore,” he said. “I came up as a tour guide plus a driver.”
The man said he had been recommended by a friend to get in contact with Aurora Story and he was led to believe that he could make more than $6,000 a month as a driver and tour guide.
“I talked to somebody and told me I am recommending or referring you to the local manager (Aurora Story owner) Evan Shi,” he said.
He said he saw the same conditions as described by other workers and quit his job after 10 days. As a Canadian citizen and with connections in town, he said he was lucky to find another driving job.
“At 8 a.m. I got up and pick up people at the airport and continue to work,” he said. “Maybe have a short-time nap for two hours. Then from four or 5 p.m. I had to prepare hot water, food, gas. Then continue to chase the auroras outside and sometimes (until after midnight).”
Clearly stressed and agitated during the interview, he said he wanted to come forward after the CBC News story broke. Unlike Yu, the man said he had not filed any complaints with the workers compensation or employment standards boards because he wanted to avoid the controversy.
‘Not a great place to work’: Federation of Labour
David Bob, president of the Northern Territories of the Federation of Labour, said labour issues involving Aurora Story have been picking up since he first heard about it in October 2018. In December 2018, there was a motor vehicle collision near the Giant Mine public boat launch due to fatigue.
“It is not a great place to work because what is happening is (the operators) have to pick up the passengers at 8 a.m. and then bring passengers to a hotel. They are typically done at 10 a.m. and go back to lunch and then pick up passengers and bring them out to whatever tours – dogsled or ice fishing.
“Then they’re back to their house at 4 p.m. and then 9 p.m. to pick up for aurora touring and nighttime and (not done until) 2 a.m. or 3 a.m.”
The job continues like that every day of the week, Bob said.
Bob said he has been hearing stories of labour violations from other local tour companies who also have their drivers/tour operators working 60 to 80 hours a week with many alleged labour violations.
Sometimes this involves Canadian seasonal workers with full citizenship and sometimes it involves temporary foreign workers, who have to little to no protections, he said.
Aurora Story responds
Evan Shi, co-owner of Toprope Company Corporation, which operates the Yellowknife Aurora Story corporate branch, said in an interview this week that in December, Yu and the other employees from Toronto plus the anonymous man from Vancouver were hired but they tended to “come together and no-show together.”
They were all unreliable, she said, despite the company having a strong professional team of about 10 drivers and 15 tour guides.
Despite what has been said about fatigue, the company ensures that drivers are working no more than eight hours a day, she said.
“Actually, every tour guide asks me for more hours and we refuse it,” she said. “The three guys and (the B.C. man) all told me they wanted more work. I don’t know why they said I gave too much work.
“After eight hours (in a day) we will assign other people because we pay them the same.
“I don’t need to ask a tour operator to work that long because I have lots of options.”
She said if workers get too tired, it can be because they have a separate part-time job or they are staying up too late playing video games or drinking.
As for housing, Shi said the company provided a dormitory for employees with up to 10 beds in a four-bedroom apartment. The company is now planning to cancel the dorm after the end of this aurora season.
Shi also told Yellowknifer that the aggrieved employees weren’t paid because they refused to give their social insurance numbers.
“They told (Employment Standards) office we don’t pay them,” she said. “We already calculated what we owed them. We asked for their social insurance number and they refused to give it to us.
“They want money but refused to give social insurance numbers.”
Employment standards explained
The Department of Education, Culture and Employment oversees the Employment Standards Act.
The department stated in an email earlier this month that employees who feel that their working rights have been violated as per the act can file a complaint.
“A person can submit a complaint to the Employment Standards office if they believe their employer hasn’t met the minimum standards put forth in the Employment Standards Act,” stated Jacqueline McKinnon, manager of communications and public affairs. “Before filing a formal complaint, employees should contact the Employment Standards office to discuss their concerns and to confirm that they have grounds to submit a complaint and they fall under the jurisdiction of the Employment Standards Act.”
McKinnon said she could not comment on complaints about potential labour violations in the tourism operation sector this year or in previous years, nor could she speak to the nature of specific complaints about the industry.
According to the Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment, based on 2015 statistics, there are an estimated total of 2,993 employees in the NWT tourism sector, which includes full and part-time positions as well as self-employment jobs.
“A “tourism activity” generally refers to a recreational or cultural activity designed specifically for visitors to an area.”
Businesses are required to have a tourism operator licence if they meet three criteria: their business offers tourism-related activities, are charging money for it and is providing guidance.
“If the business does all three, then they need to be licensed,” he stated.