Inside the Issues

Looking behind the glitz

Below deck on cruise ship*



Below decks are exploited seafarers in cramped and often squalid conditions

The magic of Disney is the illusion on which the name is built. One of the two cruise ships owned by the mega-rich American corporation, whose chief executive earns a magical million (US) dollars a year, is called the Disney Magic. In keeping with the illusion, the other is the Disney Wonder.

When new recruits join the crew, they are taken for training to Disney World in Florida and reportedly told they are “members of the cast”. The Hollywood fantasy lasts until reality sets in. “Disney, it’s like a book,” said one thoroughly disillusioned Trinidadian galley assistant. “It has a beautiful cover with beautiful pictures. But when you look inside, it’s just dirt.”

Disney is known to be anti-union, but the company is far from alone in that respect. The same startling contrast between conditions for the passengers and those for the crew is the norm rather than the exception for the world’s cruise fleet.

The past two decades have seen a phenomenal rise in the popularity of cruise holidays as more people have been able to afford them. Tourism on cruise ships is one of the world’s growth industries, increasing at a rate of about 10 per cent a year since the start of the 1990s and outstripping every other sector in the maritime industry for nearly 20 years.

But this rise has been in inverse proportion to the working conditions of the crew, who find themselves worked harder and put under more pressure. Cruise tourism is a typical microcosm of the global economy: Up on the passenger decks, affluent passengers sail the oceans on breath-taking white craft, docking at exotic ports between spells in their floating hotel, with every luxury provided and every need met. Below them, unseen seafarers toil non-stop in the galleys and laundries for hour after hour, earning a pittance and moved from job to job at will. If they as much as show their faces on the passenger decks, they may be punished.

The stark contrasts existing side-by-side are highlighted in an extensive report on the industry produced for the ITF and War on Want. In Sweatships (What It’s Really Like To Work On Board Cruise Ships), author Celia Mather underlines the gulf which can exist between the luxurious existence of passengers and the often miserable conditions and treatment of many of the crew.

There are few signs of improvement. After seeing the crew quarters on board the Cypriot-owned Joywave, the Director of the ITF Cruise Ship Campaign, Jim Given, said: “I thought I’d seen it all, but I’ve never seen living conditions as bad as these. It was absolutely pathetic – 400 seafarers with no life in their eyes.” There were two showers and one working lavatory for 100 men and women crew members, and one mess room for 300 people. The crew slept six to a tiny cabin. Their treatment, said Given, was like that meted out to criminals.

“Hotel” employees on cruise ships – typically, those working in the galley or laundry – suffer the highest levels of exploitation in the entire maritime industry according to Professor Tony Lane, Director of the Seafarers’ International Research Centre, based at Cardiff University in the United Kingdom. For seafarers from poor countries, the work is no different from the sweatshops they had hoped to escape at home, with management practices just as abusive.

But for some seafarers from developing countries, going to sea can be even worse than staying at home. They virtually become bonded labour through the illegal fees charged by crewing agents. Having borrowed money at high interest rates to get the job, they have to stick with the contract no matter how badly treated they are. If they leave, they find themselves in a spiral of mounting debt.

The lives of thousands of seafarers are characterised by:
  • insecure, short-term contracts
  • low wages and high costs, including illegal agents’ fees to get the job
  • very long working hours at high intensity, resulting in extreme fatigue
  • bullying, favouritism and race- and sex-discrimination from management
  • high labour turnover, tiredness and poor training, with inevitable repercussions on safety
  • employers who have outright hostility or resistance to trade unions and collective bargaining.
Outdated and scandalous practices frequently include segregation according to gender and skin colour or nationality, so that Westerners are given the “visible” and “contact” jobs and workers from the developing world (particularly Asia, the Caribbean, Latin America and Central/Eastern Europe) restricted to menial jobs in restaurants, bars and cabins, the engine room and the galleys below. Exploitation is also worse for those lower down the jobs hierarchy. Rarely with contracts stating a job description, they can be moved around at will.

Discrimination runs throughout their experience: Asian women are even told that they “must smell fresh”, an instruction hardly likely to be given to Western employees.

In Port Canaveral, the port authorities have been put under pressure not to let cruise ship crew members walk about in the port area. The sight of them would apparently interfere with the image being projected for the passengers.

On board, pay is low and hours are long. Each working day, over a third of cruise workers do 10-12 hours. Just under a third work 12-14 hours. An ITF survey of nearly 400 cruise ship employees showed that more than 95 per cent worked seven days a week. Where there is no union agreement, long hours and weeks without time off are considered “normal working hours”.



Different lives

The gloss
Since 1980, the number of cruise ships has grown 153 per cent, and the number of passengers by 700 per cent. In 2001, 12,000,000 passengers set sail.

Europeans have taken to cruise holidays, increasing by 15 per cent a year since the mid-1990s and now constituting a fifth of all passengers – who are mostly from the industrialised countries, middle-class and white. Europeans take longer cruises, and are seen as a huge potential market still to be tapped.

Four giant companies dominate the industry: Carnival (based in Miami), Royal Caribbean (based in Oslo, Norway), P&O Princess (based in London) and Star Cruises (based in Pulau Indah, Malaysia).

The world order book for liners has never been fuller, with 41 ships on order at the end of 2001, costing a total of US$14.7 billion. There has been a trend to bigger ships, as larger and newer vessels bring lower costs per passenger. The passenger:
crew ratio is 3:1 instead of 2:1 on older vessels.

The largest cruise companies have expanded into ports, resorts and “tourism villages”. A number already own Caribbean islands.

The reality
Seven out of 10 of the 114,500 people working on cruise ships are hotel and catering staff; the jobs with no prestige go to workers from poorer countries. Those from industrialised countries see it as an interlude and chance to see the world. Those from poorer countries – in Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean and now Eastern Europe – have often been driven to work abroad because of the desperate economic situation at home.

The labour force is segregated on almost colonial lines, based not on ability or education but skin colour, nationality and gender. Higher status employees eat in their own waitress-service restaurants and have one cabin between two, often above the water line. Below decks, low-status staff sleep in cramped cabins and are forbidden from showing their faces. It is rare to find staff from industrialised countries below deck, unless as supervisors or skilled maritime crew.

Whole areas of the boat are forbidden to those who work below the passenger decks. When a ship docks, the higher paid take the company bus to town to crew service internet cafes and the low-paid head for the seafarers’ mission run by the local church, where volunteers serve them a free meal and allow them use of free internet computers.

Crew members are sometimes told not to speak in their own tongue, even during their time off, to stop them forming compacts and exchanging views in private. Those in higher positions freely speak their own languages, although the rule is to speak English in front of the passengers.

Women are taken on in visible roles to “be nice” to passengers. They are mostly aged 35 and under, unlike the men, who often work into their fifties. Women captains and women in the deck and engine departments are rare.

Authoritarian and aggressive behaviour from management, as well as rampant favouritism, is commonly reported by staff. On-the-spot fines, heavy work and instant dismissals are management tools in some companies.

Where from?

A Carnival crew manifest from 2000 shows the crew totalled 936 people and came from 64 countries, chief among them:

Chile, China, Colombia, Costa Rica, Croatia, El Salvador, India, Italy, Nicaragua, Peru, Philippines, Romania, United Kingdom, United States and Uruguay. The ship’s officers and cruise, food, drink and entertainment managers and supervisors were all from the UK and US.

What they say

"If you speak from your heart you are gone, fired. You just have to keep saying ‘yes’. Otherwise, keep your mouth shut. It’s no use thinking about a long-term career, [you have] only a few years if you’re lucky. I just came off the telephone to my father who said ‘Never mind how poor we are, just come home’. But I borrowed US$800 to pay the agent for the job and I haven’t saved enough yet to pay it back, and also they keep my passport.”

– An Indian “potato man” who peels vegetables for 11 hours a day on board the Carnival Festival.

"We have to supply our own uniform, pens and even a lighter for passengers’ cigarettes and a wine opener for their wine."
"We get no pay for sick days off."
"We have to buy our own safety gloves."
"We are not allowed to call home, even in emergencies, without paying for the call first."
"We must queue to use the four washing machines, two dryers and two irons available for all the crew, who also have to supply their own laundry soap."
"We are given extra work if rules are broken, although the crew only finds out about these rules if or when they break them.”

– A bar waitress on board the Carnival Fantasy.