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The Underbelly of Cruising

July 17, 2009
Carnival cruise ship docked just off of Grand Cayman Island.

Carnival cruise ship docked just off of Grand Cayman Island.

I’ve been on a cruise ship once, for five days for my job and I didn’t love it. Actually I didn’t even really like it. I love the open water – sailing, boating – but my cruise experience felt like I was trapped in some garish movie theater lobby with the same awful lighting found in most casinos and patterned carpets that only Pucci could find calming. The ports we stopped at weren’t much better, littered as they were with Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville, Señor Frogs, McDonald’s, and Hooters restaurants, no thanks.

Often, I stayed onboard working (in my former life as a publicist), but when I wasn’t on the job, I was observing and intrigued. Noticing the life of the Carnival employee and wondering if this was the way out they’d dreamed of.

It’s no secret that the treatment of entry-level cruise ship employees from developing countries are over-worked and underpaid. The slang term in the industry is sweatships. In my research for this piece, I read numerous articles citing that the average cruise ship employee logs 72 hours in just one week – with just one day scheduled off (which usually doesn’t happen). What I saw while afloat reminded me of the film footage of factory workers from the 1920s – below decks hundreds of workers – mostly from Eastern Europe, Asia, and Latin America – live in cramped dormitory-style rooms.

According to Travelmole, the North American cruise industry contributed $38 billion in gross economic output in 2007, a 6.4% increase over 2006. And despite the bad economy, Cybercruises states that cruises departing from Florida in 2009 were actually up.

In other words folks, someone’s making a pile of money and it’s not the people who are working in sub-par conditions on the ship serving you shite with a smile day in and day out.

The term migrant worker, when used in the United States, began at the end of the Civil War, where workers traveled throughout the U.S. by freight train to agriculture jobs. It was then used during the Great Depression to describe farm workers fleeing the Dust Bowl in search of work. Who knew this practice would be alive and well today in industries other than trucking? But, it thrives just beneath the glamorous surface of the cruising industry.

While aboard, I talked to Thai, Serbian, Filipino, Malaysian workers, just to name a few – all sending the majority of their meager earnings back home. Because for them, I have to imagine, this was better. Why else would they be doing it? They were usually shy and didn’t talk openly about casual things, but the moment that you’d bring up family, they’d light up. But outside of those rare moments, their eyes were dim and sad.

Another commonality among the workers was the desire to change their Visa status. My understanding is that international cruise employees work under what’s known as an “H-1B” status, a US work Visa, where the employer (the cruise line) is the employee’s sponsor – meaning that they only enjoy a certain level of freedom and that freedom is always at the mercy of their employer. So the most coveted status is the Visa that gives them freedoms outside of the ship, but, I suspect, once they got that status, it would likely be “sayonara job.”

Once home, it took me a long while to absorb my role in the sweatship. Did I remember to tip my steward? My barman? My towel guy at the pool? Did I call these people by name? Look them in the eye? Smile? I know my cruisemate and I left them loads of freebies we’d gotten from our job – publicity swag bags loaded with our discarded crap…t-shirts, key chains, notepads, pens, tote bags, and the like. It still haunts me knowing that doesn’t cut it. Whatever I gave them, it wasn’t enough.

It still begs the question, is this the life they dreamed? Is this their better?