Inside the Issues

Once upon a time… Cinderella saved by the ITF

Cheri Scrivener*



by Zoe Reynolds of the Maritime Union of Australia

It is a modern day fairy tale – a Cinderella from the suburbs, worked like a slave from morning to night, injured and then abandoned. But for her caring godfather and a princely rescue by the ITF, this young woman may not have survived to warn others about the dangers behind the seemingly glamorous life on board cruise liners.

It was her first real job. Nineteen-year-old Cheri Scrivener (left) had dreamt of working on board a cruise ship since she was a little girl. She imagined tropical islands, palm trees and sunshine.

Her family paid US$3,770 for her to study at a private college as a beauty therapist. After graduating she was invited back to be interviewed by talent scouts. Crewing agent Steiner travel the world taking their pick of the most beautiful and promising young women.

“I was so excited when I was chosen,” said Cheri. “It was my mum’s dream for me. Her friend had worked on a cruise liner years ago and had a wonderful time. It sounded so glamorous. We always talked and imagined one day I could get a job like that, too.

Everyone was saying: ‘You’re so lucky. It’s the best opportunity you could get. I want to do what you’re doing.’ It seemed the ultimate job.”

But Cheri’s dream all too quickly became a living nightmare. Cheri had to pay her own air fare to train in London along with dozens of other young women. But many also had to pay their way home again, rejected, tearful, without a job.

The fast track training was all geared towards producing salesgirls – “you were judged a good beauty therapist if you could sell well,” said Cheri. “All the girls said the training was terrible. Really intensive – three weeks seemed like three years. We all couldn’t wait to get out of there. We thought once we were on the ship we’d have time to relax.”

Cheri was flown to Miami where she joined the giant cruise liner Carnival Triumph. The spanking new (1999) 101,509 gross tonne passenger vessel flagged in the Bahamas and registered to Utopia Cruises of Miami, US, sails the Caribbean, carrying up to 2,642 passengers and 1,100 crew from all over the world.

“You just get told you’ve got this ship and you’re going tomorrow. Pack your bags,” said Cheri. “I was so nervous on the flight over. I’d never been to America. I’d always been very dependent on my mum. That was another reason I was going – to learn to be independent. It was so scary, but exciting too.”

Cheri flew into Miami one day and sailed out the next. “We got on the ship and we started work that day – Saturday, 16 June 2001. We were really jet lagged but it was straight into work until 10 that night.”

Above deck the rich and famous pay up to US$3,000 for the privilege of a private balcony suite. Below deck was another class altogether.

Cheri’s three week experience on board was anything but a working holiday – more like a floating sweatshop – 12 hour shifts, six days a week, 8 am to 8 pm with training until 10 pm every second day, sleeping in cramped twin cabins each night and all day on her one day off and all for a weekly retainer of US$50. Like all the crew on board Cheri depended on tips and a commission from selling products and providing services to make money.

“Some girls would lie to get people to buy things,” she said. “Like saying you had broken capillaries and had to buy something for it. All the time you would be thinking what can I get them to buy? We got eight and a half per cent commission on anything we sold.”

As the new beauty therapist Cheri got the hardest job – giving massages to passengers, both men and women, one after the other – eight full body massages each day. And on Friday Cheri had to stay back after work and scrub the salon ceiling and walls, bottles and shelves until midnight.

Exhausted and disillusioned Cheri’s experience at sea came to an abrupt end back in Miami on Friday, 6 July, when she suffered a crippling injury in a workplace accident now subject to legal action.

Cheri was lying on the floor, a towel underneath her foot to soak up the blood, while her workmates ran to get help.

They returned with a nurse and a wheelchair and lifted Cheri off the floor. The ship’s doctor did a few tests and determined the achilles tendon was torn. Cheri would not be able to work and the ship was about to sail. They had to get her off.

So Cheri was promptly bundled off the ship with one change of dress and undies, US$300 and a scrap of paper with the name of a hospital and the telephone number of someone called Stephanie.

Left on the tarmac beside the ship in the sweltering tropical sun, Cheri watched the Carnival Triumph set sail.

Crippled, bleeding and in pain Cheri waited an hour dizzy and sweating in the heat. But the promised cab never came. Eventually someone wheeled her into the shade and called an ambulance which took her to the nearest hospital. “The doctor didn’t know the tendon was completely severed, only the scan would show that, but he did know I’d need surgery. He put my ankle in a soft cast and stitched up the wound. I got the nurse to ring the woman called Stephanie. She told me to go to the Quality Inn, they’d arranged a room for me.”

Unable to explain what was wrong with her foot, Cheri got the doctor to talk to Stephanie. She heard him arguing over the phone, saying Cheri was not well enough to travel back to Australia – she’d need surgery first.

By the time Cheri arrived at the hotel it was late at night. They said they had not heard of her. “I had to beg them to let me stay. I wouldn’t have known what to do.” The hotel was far from ideal – no room service and a long walk to a lift. Cheri had to pay hotel staff to bring her food. This was her home for the next month.

“There was a big, big panic when I got through to my parents,” said Cheri. “I told them I was falling over as I wasn’t used to crutches. I was still quite weak and totally alone. I had trouble getting into the bath and to the lift. I had two or three falls. Each time it made the pain in my ankle worse.”

Only after the family contacted her godfather and only after a call to the ITF, did things begin to look up.

“I was boarding an aircraft when I got the call on my mobile,” said godfather Bryant Roberts. “All the warning lights went on. Who would we turn to for help? We knew no-one there. The people on the cruise ship never phoned us to say Cheri had had an accident. She had no money, no clothing, no bank account, no credit card, no lawyer.”

Bryant Roberts rang the Maritime Union of Australia office in Perth and was put in touch with ITF Inspector Ross Storer.

“My instinct was the MUA would have the international connections,” he said. “I was right. The unions were her saviour. One phone call from me to the MUA and everything swung into action. Ross was known to everyone. It all happened in hours – just two phone calls and we got a lawyer through the ITF who specialises in crew claims. The ITF really came to her rescue.”

Cheri was in contact with Jim Given from the ITF cruise campaign office in Miami and he gave her the name of a lawyer, promising to help if she needed anything.

Two days later a driver picked Cheri up and took her to the company doctor for a scan, which confirmed that the achilles tendon was completely severed. He was scheduled to operate the next day.

But Cheri chose the chief of orthopaedics at a major Miami hospital to do the operation. It was a success. Cheri will walk again one day soon without crutches.

Now back home with her family in Mandurah, Western Australia, Cheri remembers it all as a bad dream. Thanks to union intervention she is on US$540 a week in compensation payments and her solicitor is fighting for a lump sum payment as well.

But sadly Cheri’s experience is all too common as the crew on board the Ocean Glory 1 detained in Dover in July 2001 can attest (see box).

“I don’t feel that they cared for me as a person,” she said. “It was like I was a machine. Once you’re broken they discard you and replace you. Once you are no longer working and making money for them, they don’t care. It’s so easy to get rid of you and get someone else.”



A familiar tale

“They take these jobs thinking they’ll have time off to sunbathe by the pool. But they’re lucky to see daylight.” This is how Jim Given, ITF Cruise Ship Campaign Co-ordinator, sums up how young, idealistic, well educated men and women are being seduced into slavery on luxury liners cruising to exotic locations. Suicide, sexual abuse, extortion, abandonment, bribery and beatings are all common.

The ITF set up its Cruise Ship Campaign Office in Florida in June 2000. Within a year 5,000 claims had been processed, 2,000 abandoned seafarers had been dealt with and over US$5.3 million recovered in back pay.


The Seafarers’ International Research Centre (SIRC) at Cardiff University is researching the employment of women seafarers: who they are, the jobs they do and the issues facing them. Minghua Zhao of the SIRC has analysed material from 104 crew lists on 83 cruise ships calling at some of the world’s major ports as part of this ITF-funded project. More than 100 interviews have been conducted in Europe, North America and Asia with shipping managers, crewing agents, trade unionists, naval architects, port and sailing chaplains and seafarers of both genders and all ranks. Zhao’s final report is being prepared. Below are two samples previewing some of her findings.

Women in demand – but not always for the right reasons

Women now make up nearly 20 per cent of the workforce on board cruise ships. Young, well-educated women with experience of working in prestigious hotels, bars and restaurants (and who speak fluent English) are in demand, especially by the industry in some Asian and Eastern European countries.

But only those who are young and of European extraction are likely to be in the public eye, and, while women may be pursers, cruise directors, financial controllers, housekeepers, food and beverage managers, chefs or executive chefs, there is only one woman captain among the 38,000 seafarers on the SIRC’s Global Labour Market Database (Cruise).

All ship’s doctors are still men; all ship’s nurses are women. Women are unlikely to be found in the deck or galley departments (or other “technical” sectors) and are more likely to work as cabin stewardesses, waitresses, cleaners or utility workers. In terms of status, there is not a huge difference between the sexes except at the most senior level (whereas four per cent of men have senior status, only two per cent of women do), but there are marked differences between the types of job men and women do.

This stereotyping is corroborated by male seafarers’ attitudes to women on board. Most welcome them, but not for their contribution to the professional running of the ship. More often, they are appreciated for apparently improving the “physical scenery” and encouraging more “civilised” behaviour, and some vanity, from the men.

More serious issues, such as equal opportunities and equal treatment, remain an irrelevance to most male seafarers, apart from (usually) the most senior officers, such as the captain or the hotel manager.

Unsurprisingly, heated debates break out as to the “proper” role of women on board. One executive chef claimed that women were slower to understand his instructions and slower to prepare dishes; the safety manager on the same ship claimed that women were weaker and more sensitive. Yet the restaurant director said tasks were assigned equally between men and women, and there was no difference in how they did the job. The doctor on board said women had no more health problems.

Karen (now a senior chef in an onshore restaurant) told of her experience of gender stereotyping. She had worked as a chef in five-star hotels when she tried to get a job on board. “I tried cargo ships, fuel ships – no chance, they didn’t take women. [They said] sorry – go home.” She was finally accepted in the cold galley of a cruise liner after persistent badgering. In some Asian countries, gender bias is worse: in Manila, men can work until they are 40, but women have to give up when they are 29. They are also checked (unlike men) for “moral standards”.

Zhao says women should have an equal chance to do all the jobs on board, and the entire industry needs to change to adapt to the growing numbers of females on board.

Shipowners, managers and crewing agents, national and international regulating bodies, trade unions and seafarers’ missions need to wake up to the fact that the seafaring labour force is no longer homogeneously male.

“It requires the industry to overcome its prejudices and further open up the jobs traditionally held by men; to integrate gender issues into seafarers’ education and training, aboard and ashore; and to extend training to their crewing agents,” she says.

“There is a long way to go before the goal can be reached. This then calls for more committed efforts and resources from the major players in the world maritime industry. In their own interest, they will have to put women’s rights, interests and welfare on their social, economic and political agenda.”

Zhao’s research shows cultural as well as gender differences. Unlike male seafarers, 40 per cent of whom come from Asia, nearly 50 per cent of women come from developed countries, followed by 30 per cent from Eastern Europe and only 13 per cent from Asia, where some countries regard women working on ships as taboo.

The few men who do not welcome women on board can have an effect out of proportion to their number. Some are in positions to discriminate; overall, they are capable of colouring the whole experience of women seafarers, and affecting their quality of life (especially as the ship is both their workplace and their home).

Zhao says: “Despite this, the majority… have positive views on their choice… and few regret their decision. Like the male seafarers, these women decided to endure the hard labour and the long separation from their families for financial and/or career considerations. They also believe their employment on cruise ships is an extraordinary experience… and would encourage other women – although few would extend such encouragement to their children in the future.”

Justice for Ocean Glory 1 crew

“I didn’t feel safe on this ship. I know what are proper fire drills but on this one, well I couldn’t describe it.” So said one of these Lithuanian receptionists and stewardesses, among the 237 crew members of the cruise ship Ocean Glory 1 stranded in the UK in mid-2001 until the ITF won a court judgement on their behalf.

The 51-year-old vessel had been detained in the port of Dover for having 35 safety defects, despite its Panamanian safety certificate. It was owned by an Italian company Cruise Invest SRL and chartered to the fugitive Greek operators Cruise Holdings. The ITF found that many of the crew members from 24 countries had paid manning agents up to US$1,500 for their jobs. Then they were being cheated out of their wages by officers fining them for minor misdemeanours. The living and working conditions were atrocious.

To compensate the tour operators, the vessel had to be sold empty of crew. The court awarded a total of US$865,000 in back wages, compensation and severance pay. After the pay-off, the crew were repatriated to begin again to find jobs.

Poor conditions boost ITF campaign

by Jim Given, ITF Cruise Ship Campaign Co-ordinator

The results of a survey carried out by Inspectors in the ITF Cruise Ship Campaign Office in Cape Canaveral, Florida, have shed new light on the conditions seafarers endure on board cruise vessels. The results below are taken directly from surveys of over 2,000 seafarers:
  • 95 per cent work seven days a week.
  • 65 per cent work more than 10 hours per day.
  • 29 per cent work more than 12 hours per day.
  • 30 per cent report less than six hours’ consecutive rest in a day.
  • 48 per cent rate the food quality for crew as poor.
  • 54 per cent report paying for their own medical exam.
  • 34 per cent report no wages when they are sick.
  • 22 per cent report paying for their own air fare to and from the vessel.
It is clear from these findings that the life of a cruise ship seafarer is one of long working hours with little reward.

Looking back over the past busy year of ITF activities in the cruise ship campaign, another clear picture has emerged. Seafarers on board vessels covered by union agreements are treated better than those in companies without agreements. Fewer than 2 per cent of all claims handled by the Inspectors were from union vessels.

Carnival and Disney, two non-union companies, accounted for the majority of individual claims from seafarers.

The ITF Cruise Ship Campaign Office collected over US$5.3 million in unpaid wages for crew members working on cruise vessels. This total includes monies recovered via industrial action and legal action.

The different types of claims handled by the Cruise Ship Campaign Office are:
  • Wage claims: 29 per cent of total,
  • Abandoned seafarers: 14 per cent,
  • Dismissals: 25 per cent,
  • Dismissals and wages: 3 per cent,
  • Injury: 16 per cent,
  • Sexual assault: 3 per cent,
  • Other complaints: 10 per cent.
2001 saw the signing of a 10-vessel agreement with International Shipping Partners (ISP) in Miami. The agreement brings protection to approximately 2,000 seafarers employed on cruise vessels. Not only does it increase their wages but also allows for all-important union representation and sets firm guidelines for employer conduct. We look forward to working closely with ISP and the crews in a long and happy relationship.

The message is clear to seafarers in non-union cruise ship companies. Contact your national union or the ITF. Together we can make a difference and improve working conditions.

Sector hit by tourism slump

Cruise ship operators remain optimistic about the long-term prospects for the industry despite a severe drop in trade following the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre.

However, American Classic Voyages, which operated two vessels in Hawaii, and Renaissance Cruises, with eight ships, both collapsed in the wake of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks in the US.

The troubled market may have also helped prompt the proposed US$6.8 billion merger of two of the big four cruise lines, P&O Princess Cruises and Royal Caribbean Cruises. The new company would have more than 40 ships and 75,000 berths.
Cruise shipping has been one of the strongest shipping growth markets in recent years with capacity predicted to double within the next 10 years.

The immediate aftermath of the crisis in the American tourist industry saw bookings plummet by more than 20 per cent, but price cuts by the leading operators have restored occupancy levels although at the cost of lower incomes.

Deliveries of new vessels have been delayed and companies have sought to cut costs by axing staff, both ashore and afloat. A number of vessels are also likely to switch away from the American market to Europe and the Far East.