Inside the Issues

The dark side of the cruise industry

Staff onboard cruise ship*



ITF launches campaign to help exploited crews

The ITF has extended the campaign against flags of convenience (FOCs) to the cruise ship sector.

Most cruise vessels fly the flags of the FOC nations of Liberia, Panama or the Bahamas, with their owners taking full advantage of tax concessions and the lack of employment rights. 
The multinational nature of cruise ship crews means that the ITF is often the only recourse for crew members against the inevitable exploitation and abuse of a system based on the lowest wage rates. Seafarers can end up working 12-hour days, seven days a week for several months just to pay back crewing agents and to pay for flights to and from the ship.

The ITF has developed a cruise ship collective agreement for FOC vessels, covering conditions of employment, wages and benefits, and which guarantees crew a certain wage each month. For example, a pastry cook would get US$587 guaranteed total per month, and a room steward US$739. It also regulates death and disability benefit, sickness, working hours, and vacation time.

Well-trained ITF Inspectors also visit cruise ships to offer trade union services to any crew members who request help, for example to those who have not been paid their wages, or have been unfairly dismissed. In some ports the ITF may recommend no action, in others crews may be told that more time is needed to prepare action. However, before seafarers do anything, they should first talk to the ITF.

The ITF would, of course, like to see the demise of the FOC open registry system. Until that time however, it strives as an organisation, to protect the rights, and look after the interests of those individuals who either need to, or choose to work on board FOC vessels.

The ITF seeks a cruise industry regulated by negotiated trade union agreements, based on respect for basic human rights and a fair wage. In the first instance the ITF’s strategy is to approach the companies that operate cruise ships and ask them to conclude ITF-acceptable agreements. If they refuse, their ships will be targeted for action by ITF port unions as well as by ITF-sponsored consumer boycott campaigns against unorganised vessels.

The idea is seductive. Getting paid to travel the world on some of the most modern and beautiful ships. A real adventure, full of romance and glamour.

However, not surprisingly, the image is too good to be true. Below decks on virtually all cruise ships is a hidden world of long hours, low pay, insecurity and exploitation.

Working days are commonly 10-13 hours long, seven days a week. Those who work continuously below deck, like in the galleys, rarely see the light of day, let alone the shimmering sea of the Caribbean.

Wages for those on a salary can be as low as US$400 a month, rising to US$700 a month for skilled cooks and fitters.

Many domestic staff are “tip earners”, paid about US$50 a month and expected to survive on the generosity of the passengers.

Some passengers abide by advice to tip up to US$3 a day for waiters and room stewards. But others spend their money on duty free shops, casinos and in the bar, while incomes are calculated on a ship with every berth filled.

Many seafarers, particularly those from the Philippines, will have to pay a crewing agent a fee of up to US$1,500 to join the ship. For the lowest paid, this will mean half of a typical eight month contract will be spent just to cover this expense.

Another trick from the employers is to demand a “Security Bond” of up to US$750 from each employee, supposedly to stop desertion and a consequent fine for the company from the US Immigration Service. The bond can extend the working time to cover expenses to six out of the eight months on board.

Discipline is harsh and often randomly applied. Passenger complaints can mean staff transferred to less desirable stations (not fully occupied for example) or dismissal.

Passengers required to pay minimum gratuities for service have been known to complain to avoid payment.

Such factors as well as the cramped accommodation, the limited leisure facilities and the lack of pension and other social security arrangements make it less attractive to many of the potential seafarers, especially to those in developed countries.

The result is an ever-accelerating staff turn-over rate which has seen the average length of hotel crew employed drop from three years in 1970 to 18 months in 1990 to nine months in 2000.



Sector growth boosted by new wave of jumbo cruiseships
The cruise ship market continues to boom, creating record profits and providing one of the shipping industry’s most buoyant sectors.

Growth predictions, based on ships already on order, show a further rise in capacity in the order of 50 per cent within the next three years. Most of the new ships are huge vessels in excess of 100,000 tons and offering more than 2,500 berths. The Voyager of the Seas, launched last year by Royal Caribbean Cruises is of 142,000 tons with a capacity to carry 3,000 passengers and 900 crew.

These larger and newer ships offer lower running costs per passenger with a passenger crew ratio of 3:1 compared to the traditional 2:1. Occupancy rates for the big three companies in the industry – Carnival Cruises, Royal Caribbean Lines and Princess Cruises – are currently running at 100 per cent.

Since the mid 1980s, cruise shipping has outstripped all other maritime sectors with an average growth rate of 9.6 per cent a year, compared with the average of all types of vessels of 2.76 per cent (see Table 1).

The number of the cruise ships (1,000 gt and over) has risen from 147 in 1980 to 225 in 1998. But these ships are also bigger and carry more passengers so the total gross tonnage increased from 2,045,000 in 1980 to 6,307,000 in 1998 and the passengers carried from 1.5 million in 1980 to over 7.5 million in 1998 (Table 2).

However, cruise shipping is still relatively immature in the leisure market, even in the United States where cruising represents under three per cent of the holiday market.

The Caribbean has the highest concentration of cruise ships, given its proximity to the United States where 5.4 million Americans went cruising in 1998, expected to rise to 6.2 m this year. By comparison, only 1.2 m Europeans took a cruise and the Mediterranean is constrained by a shorter season.

The only non-Caribbean ports to reach the world’s top ten (see Table 3) are Los Angeles on the US West Coast and Singapore.

A typical cruiseship has a crew of several hundred, with a mixture of about 40 different nationalities. Most cruise ships are registered under a flag of convenience (FOC), bearing no relation to the true ownership of the vessel. The big three register their vessels in Liberia and Panama, while Disney Cruises uses the Bahamas flag.

The cruise sector is very labour intensive and the rapid expansion of the fleet has led to a great increase in demand for seafarers. It is has been estimated that the industry presently employs about 100,000 seafarers, the majority (70 per cent) being hotel and catering staff. At least, another 31,000 seafarers will be needed by 2004 (see Table 4).

If all the 34 vessels currently on order are delivered, with 1.95 million gross tonnage and a capacity of 45,980 crew berths, this figure would double to 60,400.

The growth of the past 10 years has not been without its problems. The industry has been riddled with incidents of sexual harassment at sea. A law suit at Carnival Cruises revealed that there had been more than 100 accusations of sexual harassment and assault against crew members between 1993 and 1998.

In addition, the flourishing Alaskan cruise market – set to top one million passengers this year – was tarnished by a record fine of US$6.5 million being imposed on Royal Caribbean for dumping untreated bilge water, oil and other waste into Alaskan waters.



Table 1. Development of world merchant fleet, 1988-1999

Ship type Average growth rate %
Bulk carriers   
Cargo passenger   
Chemical tankers  
Container ships   
General cargo (multi-deck)   
General cargo (single-deck)   
Liquid gas tankers   
OBO carriers 
Oil tankers   
Passenger ships   
Reefer ships  
Ro-ro cargo ships   
Ro-ro/passenger ships   
Special ships   

Source: ISL Bremen (1998)

Table 2. Development of cruise shipping, 1980-1998
(ships of 1,000 gt. and over)

  1980 1998 Growth
No. of ships
147 225 53%
Total GT
2,045,000 6,307,000
Passengers 1,500,000 7,500,000 400%

Source: ISL, 1998; Thomas, 1995 cited in Couper, 1997; Wild, 1999

Table 3. Top 10 cruise ports 1999

Port Passenger total
(out, return and transit) in millions
Miami 2.84
San Juan
Port Canaveral
St Thomas
Cozumel 1.20 
Port Everglades  1.07 
Nassau 1.00 
Grand Cayman
Los Angeles
Singapore  0.90 

Source: GP Wild (International) Ltd

Table 4. Demand for seafarers in cruise fleet, 1996-2004

Year No. seafarers Net growth rate
by %
99,000  23%
2004 130,000  31% 
2004*  168,000  70%
* with pending orders

Source: Peisley, 1996; Wild, 1999



Good news: More jobs at sea for women
Bad news: They face rampant discrimination

Women are making up increasing numbers of cruise ship seafarers, but they are concentrated in the lowly-paid domestic jobs at sea.

The rapid expansion of the fleet, with its consequent demand for labour, has led shipping companies to look to women as a new source of labour supply. In addition, concerns over sexual harassment of both passengers and crew have meant a deliberate policy of recruiting more women has been adopted in order to create a more balanced workforce.

Research by Minghua Zhao, of the ITF-funded Seafarers’ International Research Centre at Cardiff University, based on a survey of more than 60 cruise ships has shown that women now make up about 20 per cent of the seafaring labour force, equivalent to about 15,000 women.

“The operation of the cruise ship is segregated by gender,” says Ms Zhao, “All the captains are men and no woman is found in deck and engine departments. Women concentrate in hotel, catering and other ‘non-technical’ sectors of the vessel.”

Nationality is another main factor in the allocation of jobs. Women from western and developed countries are far more likely to be found in a small number of management or administrative positions. They are also likely to be employed as entertainers, beauticians, nurses, aerobics leaders and receptionists.

On the other hand women from Asian and less developed countries are almost entirely employed in the “hotel” functions of the ship in catering, waiting and cabin staff positions.

The segregation is continued in salary. Western women are almost always paid more than those from less developed countries, even when they are doing the same job.
“The wage levels vary greatly from US$270 to US$2,400 per month for the same or similar positions,” says Ms Zhao. “There are many variables involved. But the seafarers’ nationality is one of the most important factor. For example, waitresses from England, France and Germany are paid more than twice as much as waitresses from Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines on a top-market cruise ship operating worldwide. Similar patterns are found in ships operating in Asia-Pacific.”

Western women are far more likely to be young and single and will have typically worked in the hotel and catering industries. Even when recruited from non-English speaking countries, they will have experience of working in English speaking areas.

They will be going to sea “to meet people from different cultures” or “to see the world” and their prime motivation is not financial. Many of these women were born and brought up in port areas with relatives or friends who have seafaring and/or hotel /catering experience. They do not expect to stay at sea for more than a year or two, before going back on land to familiar jobs in hotels and catering.

Comparatively, more Asian women seafarers are married with children and will tend to have more years of higher education. Like western women, most of these women will have an employment history in hotels or restaurants. Fluency in English varies greatly, with Filipino women being most able to speak English easily. But unlike western women, the prime motivation in going to sea will be financial. They hope to be able to stay on board for longer than western women, the length of time being largely dependent on their financial needs.

Like their male counterparts, women on cruise ships will work long hours, seven days a week. Most will share cabins, which will be segregated from male accommodation.

“We find no woman in any case who has expressed an intention to work at sea for more than six years,” says Ms Zhao. “The hard labour aboard and their consideration for family life, especially marriage and children, are cited as the two most important reasons for them to project their future this way. In this respect, we find not much difference between women from east or women from west nor do we find much evidence indicating a significant difference between women and men.”