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I Spent a Year Being Exploited by a Shady Canadian Call Center

When you're 21 years old, naive, broke, and desperate for a work visa, you'll make all kinds of bad decisions, which explains how I ended up struggling to sell investment strategies to strangers over the phone for 12 hours a day.

by Gina Tron
Feb 27 2014, 4:25pm

Illustrations by Alex Schubert

No one wants to work 12-hour days cold-calling random people in hopes of getting their money. At least I didn’t. But I was trying to stay in Quebec, Canada, after I graduated from college there in 2004, and in order to get a work permit (which would last a year) I had to find a job related to my studies within 90 days. I majored in film, and it was impossible to find a job in that competitive field within that time limit—especially in a French-speaking province. So I concentrated on my minor, marketing, and soon found a financial-planning firm that wanted to hire me as a “junior financial adviser.” A letter would be sent to the Department of Citizenship and Immigration to the effect that I was hired for a marketing job, and I’d stay in Montreal with my boyfriend for the foreseeable future. It sounded like an OK deal.

I worked under a “senior adviser” I’ll call Karen in a large boiler room with about 60 other people—mostly other young immigrants who were straight out of college and, I assumed, in situations that resembled mine. We were told to be there making cold calls from nine in the morning until nine at night, Monday through Friday—60 hours a week, and we’d be getting paid solely on commission. Naturally, nearly everyone hung up on us; the ones who didn’t were invited to come into the office for a free consultation. The goal was to get them to invest some of their money into the company, and if they did, we’d get a cut.

We were taught to be aggressive and relentless. The boss removed the microwave from the kitchen, saying that bringing in homemade food was for losers. We were encouraged to eat out and spend money, because if we behaved like we were rich we would eventually become rich. If this sounds insane to you, you haven’t been spending all day having annoyed strangers hang up on you. I’d take three buses to and from work every day, looking like an asshole in my $300 power suit. I wouldn’t normally get home until 11 PM, at which point I’d gorge myself on my boyfriend’s leftover food, too tired and broke to eat out. I figured in a year I could purchase a Porsche like my bosses had—all I needed to do was work harder and I’d be out of debt, maybe even pay off my college loans early. That’s what happens when you’re young, broke, and naive as fuck.

My mother had died a year prior, my dad had been laid off around the same time, and my brother was getting ready to go away to college, so my family’s financial situation was in pretty rough shape. Even so, my dad was suspicious of my new gig and its promise of riches (as he should have been). He told me it sounded unstable and shady. He couldn’t understand why I didn’t just go back to Vermont, where I grew up, and get a “real” job. I kept reassuring him that it would all work out as long as I worked hard. I thought I'd be able not only to support myself but to help out my family too—and buy a luxury car on top of that. I’d sell investments; I’d make money; I’d save my family and never have to worry about anything again.

Ehab, a young Egyptian man who worked there with me, remembers the same cracked-out culture of consumption at the firm as I experienced. “New joiners are sold a dream, including a visit to the garage to get a glance of the (leased) luxury cars that senior members have earned,” he said. “As a rookie, you are used and abused, as your 'inexperience' justifies it.” He looks back on his time there as the most cutthroat work experience of his life, “a real-life example of the pyramid structure, with everyone in the chain getting a piece of the action. Anyone who leaves is mocked and considered a failure.” Almost all of us failed, of course—cold-calling is a nightmare in which you fail, over and over again, to sell anything. Sometimes you make more than 300 calls and fail on every one of them.

In a lot of ways—the cold-calling, the worship of wealth, the sense that riches were just around the corner—Ehab and I were in a “real-life version of the movie Boiler Room,” as he describes it. And it did feel as if we were at the bottom of a pyramid scheme, too. Heck, we were literally working in a pyramid-shaped building. The only difference was that the business wasn’t a scam at all: The stocks and bonds we hawked were legitimate (in fact they were a pretty stable and conservative way to invest). Advisers would even purchase the same financial products they sold. We weren’t scamming anyone.

On the other hand, we were getting scammed a bit ourselves. In Boiler Room they get rich; I made just $6,500 that year, which was pretty standard for a lot of us. Maggie, a Chinese coworker of mine, made even less. When I got in touch to reminisce with her, she told me that working there was “the darkest moment [of my life] up till now. No money. No results. Long hours.” Like me, she did it all to stay in Canada on a work visa.

I should note that I wasn’t actually terrible at my job. During my first few weeks, a man I brought in via a cold call transferred a large sum of stocks to the company, and I got a big fat $6,000 commission. I spent nearly half of it on a laptop that I thought would improve my work experience and on business suits that were required for work. I also threw $300 away on a “professional-looking” haircut. I assumed that $6,000 checks were going to be a regular thing for me.

Often I would bring in potential million-dollar clients, and they would seem interested in signing over their assets. But when that happened, before the meeting in which I was supposed to close the sale, Karen would tell me not to take that meeting. I looked too young, she would tell me, adding that I would only be a distraction. Every time I was pushed out of these meetings, Karen would claim afterward the person didn’t sign, so no commission for me. I began to suspect Karen was lying to me and taking my cut.

Meanwhile, 12-hour workdays (which were actually more like 14.5 hours when you factor in the commute) were eating away at my relationship with my boyfriend, which was already on the rocks—he was mean-spirited, and one night an argument ended in physical violence. That was one thing I had promised myself I would never tolerate in a relationship, yet I stayed with him, and kept working at my awful job to remain in the country for him. I was going deep into credit-card debt, was 21 years old and worked all day for nothing, and was too exhausted to ever enjoy the city around me. I was desperately unhappy, but nobody was forcing me to stay in this situation. All I had to do was leave my job and my boyfriend and take a two-hour Greyhound ride back home to Vermont, where I could find a job that paid me actual money, not vague promises of commissions. But I didn’t do that. I guess back then I thought I deserved that kind of treatment. I cringe when I think about how low my self-esteem must have been.

I stayed at the financial planning company for the full year, until my work visa ran out, after which I went back to Vermont, as I should have done long before. A few years later, I got an email from Karen, who told me she was being audited and wanted me to sign some paperwork claiming I had been paid $30,000 that year. I pretty much told her to fuck off and didn’t think any more about it. I had moved on with my life.

While I was writing this piece and thinking back to that strange episode in my life, however, it seemed to me that the company was doing something seriously illegal. I called Julie Taub, an Ontario-based lawyer who specializes in immigration, and she told me the situation “sounds like fraud,” since Karen was clearly claiming to the government that she was paying her workers a salary, when in fact she was paying them straight commission.

Taub added that it was suspicious that the company seemed to prefer using immigrants and young people who wouldn’t realize how badly they were being used. “It sounds like exploitation of people who are not well-versed in the country’s law and labor legislation,” she said. “It’s exploitation, fraud, and the exploiting of worker’s ignorance.”

For this article, I called the company I worked for and told them I was curious about my time there and the money I earned. The accounting department told me that I technically never worked there—really, I had been a sort of subcontractor for Karen, who, they said, hadn’t done things as she should have and was no longer an employee. So I called Karen at her new job and left her a voicemail. Her husband called me back and contradicted what the financial-planning company said—I had never technically worked for Karen. What’s more, he claimed that I had been paid $30,000 for that year and that I must be forgetting that I received that money (why I would lie in this situation was left unclear). He added that if I wrote anything bad about his wife or him he would “crush” me.

But my point is not to accuse anyone of specific crimes—that’s water under the bridge, and I don’t want to get involved in a protracted legal battle with an asshole like Karen. This is no exposé; it’s a cautionary tale about what happens when you’re young and broke and desperate and don’t value yourself. Don’t take shady jobs from Craigslist, don’t drift along at a job that’s exploiting you if you can help it, realize that people will lie to you—even people who are older and richer and appear to know better than you. And if you’re making cold calls in some miserable boiler room right now, just quit.

Gina Tron is the features editor for Ladygunn magazine and the creative director for Williamsburg Fashion Weekend. She is currently in the process of completing a book. Follow her on Twitter: @_GinaTron.