• Mina Phillips

Staff Treatment on Cruise ships

At the start of 2018 my husband and I went on our first cruise. We were on our honeymoon and really didn’t know what to expect. What we got…well, I shouldn’t complain about. We were privileged guests on a floating city of unlimited buffets and activities. Still, the whole experience felt uncomfortable. The people providing the buffets and room service seemed stressed, exhausted and desperate for tips. So when the cruise was over I did some research. What I found, sadly, didn’t surprise me.

The treatment of staff on cruise ships

I came across a report by the organisations’ War on Want and the International Transport Workers' Federation. Everything I read in the report fit in with what I had witnessed.

The report stated that cruise workers who come from poorer countries “are usually people with dependents, those who have to support children or elderly parents. They are mostly well educated but driven to find work abroad because of the desperate economic situation at home.”

Our waiters, who served us almost every night while we were on our cruise, were men from India and the Philippines. Both had families who they sent money home to and saw in person perhaps every five to six months, when they weren’t working on board.

The report also found that positions and wages were largely determined by worker’s gender, nationality and skin colour. It found that, across a Carnival cruise line, 20% of the on board staff were women and that it was immensely unlikely for females to be given roles as ship captains or work within the engine rooms or deck areas. The study also came across multiple cases of sexual harassment and gender exploitation.

It highlights on board hierarchy; “The higher status employees, largely from industrialised countries, have cabins - often above the water-line - in which only two share. They eat at their own waitress served restaurants, have their sheets changed every day, and may have access to some passengers’ facilities such as the on-board Internet cafe.”

“Meanwhile, below decks, in the galleys preparing food, for example, the majority are from developing countries and Eastern Europe. These crew members are not allowed up beyond a certain level into the passenger areas, or face disciplinary action. They sleep in cramped, noisy cabins. Their food is often leftovers, taken in a crew canteen. There is usually a small area allocated on a lower deck where they can take some sea air but, with the long working hours, there is little time.”

A survey conducted by the International Transport Workers' Federation found that 90% of staff, over nearly 400 cruise ships, were working 7 days a week. The Sweatships report discovered that crew members, such as waiting staff and room attendants, mostly depended on tips for their income.

It confirmed that what I had learned in conversation with staff on our cruise was common practice. One of our waiters informed us that, without tips, he and his co-worker would receive no money. He made a point of persuading us to give our assistant waiter and him a good review to help them receive promotions. We spoke highly of them to their superiors. They worked extremely hard, were so humble and went out of their way to accommodate my vegan diet on a non-vegan friendly cruise.

Our room attendant also raised concerns over the ethics of staff treatment. He seemed consistently anxious about being reprimanded. We explained to him that we were very relaxed and asked for our room to not be serviced twice a day, so that we could have some privacy. He made us promise that we wouldn’t report him… for respecting our request. When we left him a tip at the end of the cruise he requested that we give the tip directly to him. He said that if we tipped him through the ship’s process it would never reach him.

The War on Want organisation and International Transport Workers' Federation suggest that those who want to make a positive difference write to governments and cruise companies to put a focus on cruise ship workers’ rights. They also urge anyone thinking about booking a cruise to “Make sure you go with a cruise company that recognises trade union organisation.” Unions can offer support to cruise ship staff when they are unable to find it on board.

Do you have a cruise ship experience you would like to share? Raise awareness in the comments!


*The name of the cruise line we went on has intentionally been left out of this post in order to protect the staff members mentioned

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