Inside the Issues

How working on a cruise ship is emotionally as well as physically demanding

Cruise ship*



Thirty years ago, a light-hearted American TV programme, “The Love Boat”, painted a picture of sun, fun and romance on board cruise ships. Since then, cruise ships have become bigger and grander, carrying up to 3,000 passengers, mostly from North America and Western Europe, in huge floating hotels sailing the world.

For the past 20 years, these well-off tourists ( Cruises with few exception is for mass tourism, it is the cheapest way for holiday of all) have made cruise shipping the fastest growing sector of the world maritime industry, with an average growth rate of 9.6 per cent. There are now about 250 cruise ships over 1,000GT sailing the oceans.

But the passengers are kept in blissful ignorance about the people who cater for their every need. Often paid derisory wages of around US$50 a month – less than the price of a pair of sunglasses in the onboard shop ( It is not true at all 50 Usd is the minimum paid cash , while the company guaranteed wages which  are well above that figure, no one on board get less than 800 dollars as minimum – they work 12-hour days, seven days a week. Instead of improving, work for seafarers on cruise lines has become more demanding as companies decrease their ratios of crew to passengers ( yes in some cases , while on others companies compete against eachothers offering higher pax/crew ratio. And to eke a living, they have to keep smiling.

Only by keeping a smile on their faces and making sure they please the passengers are they likely to receive the tips that make up their wages. This regime is used by management to make sure that seafarers give every ounce not just of their physical energy but their emotional energy to please the company’s customers. Recruitment decisions are made on stereotypes, based on which races and nationalities are considered the most friendly, hospitable and cheerful.

But these “below stairs” hotel and catering workers will never smile enough to attain prestigious roles with more status and money. They remain the preserve of mostly white, Western Europeans, to sustain the nostalgic image of trans-atlantic liners. (The biggest cruise companies have mixed race hotel crew eastern European are a minority compared to Asian and Central American.)

The commercialisation of emotional labour by cruise lines is the subject of a report from the ITF-funded Seafarers’ International Research Centre (SIRC) at Cardiff University, UK. The centre’s Deputy Director, Dr Minghua Zhao, has conducted research into the working and living conditions of women seafarers on cruise ships. Emotional labour was not part of the original brief – but, as Dr Zhao discovered, the ability to maintain a happy, smiling face and attitude, despite bad pay and exhaustion, is now demanded by cruise lines.

“Smile is a vital component of the product and service cruise lines promise to deliver to meet their customers’ demand for leisure. Seafarers’ smiling faces, men and women of various colours, are displayed on travel agents’ shelves and permeate cruise lines’ brochures, advertisements in newspapers, travel shop series on television and so on.

“These smiling faces are presented to convey a message and to leave an impression: on cruise ships, seafarers enjoy their work as much as passengers enjoy their fun and leisure. ‘It’s a heaven not in this world!’ as one of the major cruise lines says in its television advertisement.

“In fact, shipboard labour is extremely hard for seafarers on cruise ships. This is probably the only point agreed by both trade unions and ship owners. Either in trade unions’ publication or in crewing agencies’ pamphlets or in shipping companies’ brochures, seafaring labour in hotels and catering departments is described as ‘involving work for 12 hours a day and seven days a week’, and ‘the work is conducted in a confined space, far away from your family and friends for most part of the year’. The only party deliberately kept away from this knowledge is the customers.”

Cruise lines’ recruitment managers admit that they favour certain races and nationalities for their apparent ability to keep smiling. One told Dr Zhao: “Interviews… give us an opportunity to meet the applicants and evaluate their personality and ability to work with people. Smiling is certainly an extremely important area we will look into. After all, this is a hospitality industry and smiling faces are more welcomed by our guests. We use many Indians on our vessels. Believe me, they work hard and they always smile.”

Another said: “Somehow, the Asian seafarers, especially the Filipinos, can smile very nicely. They seem to have born with a wonderful service culture. They always greet the guests and always smile. And they do it so naturally. We get very good feedback from our guests about these seafarers. They always look energetic, positive and cheerful, even after nine months at sea! In comparison, European seafarers seem easy to get fatigued. After four months, their fatigue will show, and our guests don’t like to see those who serve them look tired and unable to smile.”

The stereotyping also works in reverse. Eastern European people are believed by shipping managers to be dour. Dr Zhao said: “Managers tend to make particular notes about seafarers from Eastern European countries, accusing them of ‘not being able to smile’ or ‘they are always so rigid’. Many of them admit that they would give priority to employing Asian seafarers, as long as seafarers from both regions are available in the labour market and their rates remain the same low.” Only when profits are affected – such as by the high cost of air fares to bring Asian seafarers to ships docked in Europe – are cruise lines prepared to overlook their own prejudices.

But no matter how brilliant or enduring their smiles, or how good they are at their jobs, certain races and nationalities will certainly be overlooked for promotion or jobs at ‘key points’, with most contact with the passengers. The report says: “While the managers are predominately white male, Asian seafarers experienced in hospitality industry are increasingly employed as waiting seafarers. Those from Thailand, especially men, are particularly popular with ship managers because, in addition to their experiences, they are assumed to be able to smile ‘naturally’ and to have ‘born’ with a right ‘service culture’, hence they are ‘popular with passengers’, as we were told by ship managers.

“However, we found, through our shipboard observation of the operation process in bars and restaurants and our in-depth interviews with seafarers serving in these areas, that these Asian seafarers have to work even harder on their emotion in order to deliver the ‘proper’ service which makes them popular with passengers. Sam, the Thai headwaiter, for example, was one of the few seafarers who were most popular with the passengers and collected most tips at the end of almost every cruise. His main station was the main restaurant, where he worked for 11 to 12 hours a day and seven days a week, as every other waiter or waitress does. What distinguished Sam, however, was his ‘brilliant memory’ and his ‘broad smile’. He was always at the restaurant entrance, greeting every passenger with a bright ‘good morning’ or ‘good afternoon’ and a broad smile. He remembered many passengers’ names, noticed their likes and dislikes, asked about their families, and sometimes flirted a bit with women passengers.

“But this apparently forever-happy-energetic-and-smiling headwaiter is transformed into another person with the progress of our two-hour interview in a quiet office under the bridge. He becomes serious and shares with us how he feels about the job:
It’s a very hard job. I always feel exhausted when I finish it and come down to my cabin. You may not know the nature of hospitality industry. The restaurant is a stage, a show. You are an actor. Believe me, you can be totally drained just by greeting people, chatting with them, smiling to them, and things like that. As an Asian, I have to work harder, I have to make more efforts to please the passengers. Sometimes, I feel I have to flirt a bit with the ladies, because I find it works. People are generous if they like you.

“Sam and another Thai headwaiter are the two most popular headwaiters in the main restaurant, the best tip-earners among all the seafarers, and have been selected many times as the Best Seafarer of the Month in their department. However, when the post of restaurant manager became available, it was another European headwaiter who was promoted to the position.”

Dr Zhao concludes: To seafarers on cruise ships, the labour is as hard as before. Indeed, it has become harder. Since the 1990s, ship owners have begun to compete with each other to build larger and larger ships. The ‘economy of scale effect’, resulting in increased profit, is certainly behind the ship owners’ and operators’ strong interest in large cruise ships. Both capital cost and operating cost per passenger decreases rapidly with the increase of ship size. With bigger ships, crew costs only increase marginally.

During the same period, the crew-passenger ratio has kept growing with the increase of the ship size. Traditionally, the typical ratio was 1:2 to 1:2.5 depending upon the position of the ship in the cruise market. Each cabin seafarer looked after 10 to 12 cabins, as observed by Maxton-Graham 20 years ago. Now, it has become 1:3 on most ships and can be 1:4 or even higher. It means that the seafarer has to clean more cabins, remember more names and smile to more passengers. They have to labour harder for longer hours.

But, changes in this aspect did not happen overnight. The intensification of seafaring labour has happened gradually, and subtly in many cases. On board today’s ship, the single most striking difference from the early 1980s is that chances are getting smaller of seeing the same work conducted by Norwegian or seafarers from other developed countries. Now, these tasks are conducted by seafarers from developing countries, from Asia, from Eastern Europe, from Latin America and so on. Placed as front line workers at the bottom of the ship hierarchy, these seafarers are bearing the brunt of the restructuring of the world shipping.

Seafarers on Cruise Ships: Emotional Labour in a Globalised Labour Market, by Dr Minghua Zhao, is based on data drawn from one of the research projects conducted by the Seafarers’ International Research Centre (SIRC) into working and living conditions on cruise ships.



Raising standards in the cruise ship industry: The ITF’s cruise ship campaign

The ITF has a campaign to help the crews of cruise ships. These seafarers face particular problems. The crews are usually multi-national and have different employers, with large numbers of them relying on tips for income. Many groups are covered by union agreements, but the vast majority of the world’s 150,000 cruise ship seafarers are not.

ITF Inspectors visit cruise ships to offer trade union services to those crew members who request it, for example if they have not been paid or are unfairly dismissed. We also have a model cruise ship collective agreement for flag of convenience cruise ships, covering conditions of employment, guaranteed minimum salaries and benefits.
Just as importantly, our campaign seeks to influence governments and the international regulatory bodies to apply and enforce proper employment standards in the cruise ship industry.

What we want enforced
The ITF represents seafarers on the international bodies which set global standards for employment conditions, recruitment, training and safety at sea. The key ones are the International Maritime Organisation, which deals in the main with ship safety and navigational matters, and the International Labour Organisation, which lays down minimum employment standards through ILO conventions, many of them specifically applicable to seafarers.

The ITF campaigns for the ratification of these ILO conventions by individual countries so that the minimum standards are incorporated into national law. We also press governments and the international regulatory bodies to police and enforce these norms.

Among the principal ILO conventions which the ITF wants to see properly enforced in cruise shipping are:
  • Convention 179: Recruitment and Placement of Seafarers This requires signatory countries to ensure that seafarers are not charged any fees for recruitment. Crewing agencies must be supervised and regulated and they must respect trade union rights. Properly enforced, this convention would have put a stop to Muhammad Ali Pasha’s fraudulent activities.
  • Convention 180: Seafarers’ Hours of Work and the Manning of Ships Seafarers should work no more than 14 hours in any 24-hour period or 72 hours in any 7-day period or receive rest periods of no less than 10 hours in any 24-hour period or 77 hours in any 7-day period.
  • Convention 183: Maternity Protection Women should be entitled to a period of maternity leave of not less than 14 weeks.
  • Convention 178: Labour Inspection Individual countries must maintain a system of inspection of seafarers’ working and living conditions.
  • Convention 166: Repatriation of Seafarers A seafarer is entitled to repatriation free of charge if a contract expires or is terminated abroad, in the event of illness, injury, shipwreck or war or as a result of bankruptcy, sale of the ship or change of its registration.
  • Convention 165: Social Security This requires national governments to make sure that seafarers are provided with social security protection: medical care, sickness, unemployment, old-age, employment injury, family, maternity, invalidity and survivors benefits.
  • Convention 164: Health Protection and Medical Care National laws or regulations must make shipowners responsible for keeping ships in proper sanitary and hygienic conditions and must provide medical care free of charge for seafarers, guaranteeing them the right to visit a doctor without delay in ports of call.
  • Convention 147: Merchant Shipping Minimum Standards Each country must have laws or regulations laying down minimum standards for seafarers on ships registered in that country, including safety standards and standards of competency, hours of work and crewing, conditions of employment and living arrangements. The convention also requires states to inspect and detain substandard ships.
  • Convention 146: Seafarers’ Annual Leave with Pay Seafarers are entitled to paid annual leave of at least 30 days excluding public holidays.
Other conventions (87 and 98) guarantee the right to belong to a trade union, outlaw discrimination on grounds of gender or race (111) and require equal pay for men and women performing the same or similar work (100).

In theory at least, all cruise ship seafarers should enjoy the protection and basic standards laid down in many of these conventions. In practice, however, cruise ship crews are often among the most vulnerable and exploited groups of seafarers in the world. That is why the ITF and its affiliated national unions are campaigning hard to have these international norms properly enforced by shipowners, crewing agencies and governments.

For more information about the ITF cruise ship campaign contact:

ITF Cruise Ship Campaign Office
399 Challenger Road, Suite 103, Cape Canaveral, Florida 32920, USA
Telephone: +1 321 799 2994
Fax: +1 321 799 9282