The Fun Ship
“In a civilized country like where I come from,” said Eustace, “the ships are so big that when you’re inside you wouldn’t know you were at sea at all.”
“In that case you might just as well stay ashore,” said Caspian.
from C.S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
In 2011, Carnival Cruise Lines began a $500 million investment to upgrade their fleet of cruise ships to what they call “Fun Ship 2.0.” According to Carnival’s website, on this new line of cruise ships, guests can indulge in “mouth-watering new dining choices, more exciting bars and lounges, and captivating entertainment options” such as Hasbro-themed game shows and enough new bars to keep passengers mentally absent for hours on end. Adding to the popular appeal, Carnival has hired comedian George Lopez and Food Network star Guy Fieri to design the comedy clubs and fast food joints. They have put a lot of money and effort into producing pure entertainment.
I missed this upgrade by a few years. In December of 2008, I took the Carnival Fascination (Fun Ship 1.0) down to the Bahamas. I visited Ernest Hemingway’s house in Key West and explored the old forts of Nassau. I enjoyed activities like these, but much to my surprise, I left the ship with a feeling of dread. During the short week I traveled down Florida’s east coast, I found myself drawn more to the ship’s crew than the passengers. Attitudes contrasted sharply: the passengers laughed freely while the crew struggled to crack a grin. Through discussions with various crew members, I learned that this attitude grew from a relentless employment system that thrives on long hours, unequal pay, impossible standards, and other questionable business ethics, all of which culminates in huge profits for the company. My ensuing research shows that this applies not just to Carnival, but to the industry in general.
Most cruise lines operate in much the same way as Carnival and draw their employees from the same recruiting firms. To cut costs and increase their own profits, they usually acquire cheap labor through A.W.C. Cruise Ship Recruitment Placement Agency, which advertises on its website that it owns offices in “USA, Singapore, Indonesia, Philippines as well as affiliate offices in Europe and South America.” A.W.C. typically sends employees from poorer parts of the world to its clients for menial labor like dish washing and stewarding. A.W.C. bases its pay rates on the average wages of each employee’s home country, so a man from the Philippines may make about $1.00 per hour while a man from Russia could make several times as much for the same work. In poor countries, these hiring agencies have long waiting lists for work and will never run out of help, which means A.W.C. and its clients (the cruise ships) will never have to improve either the wages or conditions to attract more employees. A.W.C.’s many clients include Carnival Cruise Lines, Royal Caribbean International, and Disney Cruise Line. Chances are, if you sail on a popular cruise line, sooner or later you will probably receive your drinks from a desperate and unhappy Filipino man who barely speaks English and is being paid around $1.00 an hour.
For their leisure employees—hairdressers, massage therapists—these cruise lines typically find cheap labor through Steiner TransOcean, an employment agency focused on recruiting and training employees from First-World countries like the United States and Britain. Cruise Bruise, a website dedicated to recording incidents and conditions aboard cruise lines, reported that Steiner “provides dirt cheap labor of about 2,000 crew members on average for 129 cruise ships including those owned by Carnival Cruise Lines.” Since between 250 and 300 cruise ships sail around the world at any given moment, this represents at least a third (if not half) of the whole industry.
Steiner has a reputation for ruthless training and barbaric managers, but I’ll open this phase of the discussion with a concession. Some have said in online forums that they enjoy working for Steiner, and that the conditions are on par with basic training in the military; that is, if you put in the effort, you will see the rewards. A former Steiner employee said on Indeed.com (grammatical errors included), “Yes, majority of the horrid experinces are true but Steiner want tough, positive, determined staff. They treat you harshly, with long enduring hours with strict curfews and crappy food, [k]ind of like being in the army!”
Should Steiner suddenly decide to advertise the real training conditions to every prospective employee, one might be more willing to accept this intense regimen, as it likely serves at least a few useful outcomes. After all, some Steiner employees consider themselves successful. However, many people who sign up with Steiner have no idea what they’re in for. Steiner’s website advertises a career with their company as a life of luxury and adventure. In contrast to the vibrant and happy images on their home page, a mother said on Indeed.com that her daughter had started training at Steiner, and “she is very unhappy due to the housing and lack of proper communication in regards to an actual start date onboard. The training staff she advised are rude and quite verbally aggressive.” Did Steiner warn this girl of the training methods, or deceive her with bright images of adventure? The same mother from Indeed.com said the trainers push their students to use and buy more makeup, and the training facility does nothing to cater to various dietary needs such as allergies or intolerances. In all likelihood, the company didn’t make this information readily available because this woman’s unfortunate daughter learned this only after beginning her training. A company shouldn’t necessarily feel obliged to coddle any of its employees, but when people in positions of responsibility neglect the physical needs of their students, tough love becomes abuse.
To make matters worse, salaries don’t justify this treatment. Once Steiner employees finish their unpaid training, they typically rely on commission to get by, so wages average around a dollar or two an hour. Only these few dollars come straight out of Steiner’s own coffers. Current and former employees have pointed out that Steiner will not pay for your work clothes or the flight home following employment, instead making employees pick up the bill themselves. One has to wonder what Steiner does pay for. The company’s revenues continue to increase, from $126.3 million in 2006 to $140.4 million in 2007, a difference of $14.1 million in a single year. Moreover, Steiner stock values remain consistent from year to year, with infrequent, always temporary dips. Because cruises remain popular year after year, Steiner continues making a massive profit. Would sparing, say, another dollar an hour for their employees be such an economic burden?
Since my cruise in 2008, I’ve also observed a pattern of discrimination in cruise line hiring practices. Specifically, cruise lines use different companies (Steiner, A.W.C.) to select and train people from specific countries to perform particular tasks. A Filipino man from A.W.C. will clean your room while a sprightly, hand-picked coterie of American girls do a little dance for you. This gives the cruise ship what amounts to a racially bearable façade, as the customers will directly interact with culturally familiar French waiters or American entertainers, and only briefly interact with unfamiliar Filipino cleaners and cooks who, whether one wants to admit it or not, signify the cultural Other.
On the sea, this racial hierarchy defines our “leisure” experience, and few people see the problem. What would happen if we tweaked these conditions slightly and had only African-Americans clean up after the guests? Would this inspire deafening outrage? In any case, because these menial-task employees hail from comparatively impoverished countries—the likes of which the average American typically ignores—we hear little more than a peep from the media. Perhaps not so ironically, hypocrisy and prejudice continue to thrive in a culture impressed with its own progressive mentality.
Cruise line employees work longer hours under more duress than most Americans would ever dream of tolerating. A typical cruise line employee can expect to work with a skeleton crew (or alone) for at least 12 hours straight without much time to sleep in between shifts. When the hours go beyond this average, which does indeed happen more than many administrators would like to admit, the companies typically don’t recognize these additional hourly duties as overtime.
A strong marketing mentality keeps these employees afloat, whether they are selling drinks, jewelry, or souvenirs. Managers on these ships push their employees to meet extremely difficult sales quotas. If staffers don’t meet these daily goals, they may soon find themselves out of work. When the sun sets, employees have already worked beyond a typical 8-hour shift, but right at this very moment, the managers put even more pressure on their employees to meet sales goals before the guests turn in for the night.
Room stewards have it especially hard. The workload frequently requires stewards to hire additional help using their own money, which seems like an unethical situation by nearly any civilized person’s standards. A stateroom steward for Norwegian Cruise Lines ran into this problem while working through his contract with the company. The Daily Beast quoted the steward as saying, “There was no way two of us could clean 34 rooms between 10:15 and 11:30 a.m.” So, as misfortune would have it, an employee trying to save money for his family back home may have to use those savings to finish his work in order to keep his job.
The stress and exhaustion these employees feel has caused sicknesses and injuries, which inevitably leads to weakened performance. No matter the reasons, when an employee fails to meet the standards of this draconian system, he or she may experience what the crew has termed “The Six A.M. Knock,” in which a member of management wakes a crew member to tell him or her to pack up and get off the ship, regardless of the port. Some terminated crew members have testified online that although the cruise provides for your transportation back home—by scheduling a flight, for example—if you miss the designated departure time, they then leave you to find your own way home. A.W.C. advertises in its job postings that “travel expenses will be paid upon completion of the first contract.” However, former employees have testified online that an early termination of the contract—through your decision or theirs—means you will pay for your own flight home. Considering that other testimonies have contradicted this claim, it seems to me that these employment agencies act inconsistently in their treatment of employees. If he can even secure transportation home, a man from the Philippines who knows only essential English could miss his flight in the confusion. Many of these employees don’t make enough money to buy a flight overseas. What becomes of them then?
Conditions for some employees have deteriorated so much that many of them decide to jump ship and disappear into unfamiliar American cities. U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents confirmed these incidents and have made efforts to prevent what some statistics indicate might be thousands of cruise line ship jumpers every year. Of course, while some of these deserters must have had illegal immigration in mind when they first signed the contract, perhaps others saw greener pastures off the ship and could not resist the urge to escape a despicable work environment.
Jumping ship and blending into an American city might not seem like such a bad idea given that the average international cruise ship worker earns between $0.75 and $1.50 an hour. If an employee earns $1 an hour at 12 hours a day, she earns a whopping $336 a month. As I mentioned earlier, much of the crew comes from the Philippines, where workers typically earn about $279 a month, so it might seem at first glance like they earn a decent living. However, these cruise lines typically charge American rates for their products and visit American ports, where it costs more to eat and shop. If foreign employees want to have a decent lunch off the ship, doing so will cost them a large chunk of their paychecks. When employees have to hire extra help to finish their work, more of their income evaporates. Money becomes so scarce that most employees stay on the ship throughout their contract, not once stepping foot on these exotic locales.
While I understand these people are on the ship to work, not play, I also believe they have earned their leisure time; yet a Filipino can easily spend an entire eight-month contract looking out the ship’s windows. International employees typically sign contracts with employment agencies because they want to provide for their families with wages higher than in their home countries, but factoring in location and personal expenses, they gain little—if anything—by sailing the sea.
The unpleasant working conditions aboard cruise ships often engender prejudice and spite. Besides the companies’ poor treatment of their employees, the guests do little to make the jobs easier to handle. Many guests tip very little, act like working on a cruise ship is a privilege, and tell the employees that they can go home if they don’t like the jobs. In other words, these guests make little effort to understand that these employees sign contracts, work tirelessly, and cannot easily leave the ship.
Disregarding the situation aggravates an already sensitive issue. A significantly high number of testimonies suggests Filipino workers generally dislike Americans to begin with. When Americans with enough money to sail in luxury tell these struggling men and women to appreciate their fortune, those prejudices only get worse. Some of these employees even act out. Statements from a broad cross-section of cruise line crews validate a disturbing corroboration: disgruntled employees have intentionally contaminated guests’ food and drinks and neglected to wash their hands or wear gloves, sometimes intending to spread sicknesses like the flu-like norovirus. On the last night of the cruise, when guests put their baggage in the halls for collection in the morning, some of the crew have rummaged through the bags to take expensive items, perhaps to sell them and supplement their paychecks. Crew members speak of this thievery as though it has become routine.
While I would not defend sabotage, theft, or a blatant disregard for sanitation, I can understand the anger that triggers this retaliation. While sailing on the Carnival Fascination in 2008, I spoke to a man from India who complained about the prejudice, and he emphasized the discriminatory wages. This decent fellow ran a large gift shop alone, all day long, and earned maybe a fourth as much as the Russian who ran a tiny liquor store down the hall. He complained that he never had anyone to talk to. Customers typically bought their merchandise and then left as soon as possible—a standard for any retail setting. To aggravate this man’s situation, management did not (and does not) allow fraternizing with the guests, for fear of romances brewing (a popular method to immigrate). In theory, co-workers would serve as his only social outlet, but because he worked alone, this outlet didn’t exist. I imagine he could only briefly talk to other employees in passing before and after their long shifts. Whatever the case, this poor soul who opened up to me felt isolated, exhausted, and at his wits end. To his credit, he didn’t resent Americans for his situation; he only resented his employers. If I were to live in his shoes—told to work every waking hour, alone and shut off from every person I see—I would surely develop some resentment, too.
One might wonder how cruise lines based in the United States, owned and managed by Americans, could get away with discriminatory hiring practices and exhausting working conditions. In short, they play by different rules. They register their ships in foreign ports, such as Cuba and Nassau, so their business practices fall under the scrutiny of Maritime Law, which allows for looser employment practices on international waters. This enables the cruise ship industry to conduct business with methods that have no place inside U.S. borders. Unfortunately, while many would prefer to have these companies register on American soil and adhere to American laws, one can find no legal reason to make them adapt to our stricter guidelines. Cruise ship companies conform to the constraints of Maritime Law, and this turns them a profit. Making these companies change their ways to appease our ethical sympathies would take nothing less than a miracle. It would mean attacking those profits by convincing hundreds of thousands of customers to stop booking their vacations on the sea—customers who may want to turn a blind eye to these issues so they can fully enjoy sipping margaritas as they stare out at the rolling waves.
Perhaps making changes to the cruise ship industry is just a pipe dream. Guests like sailing in luxury, no matter the cost, and in fact, despite various disasters and economic turmoil, the demand for cruises hasn’t declined. Cruise Bruise reported in October 2007 that Steiner, the leisure employment agency, maintained a stock (STNR) “in the mid $40 range.” As of February 23, 2013, their stock still sat at a comfortable $44.77 ($49 on March 19). During the fourth quarter of 2008 and the first quarter of 2009—the height of the financial crisis—that stock dropped to nearly $20, but in just a few more months that stock returned to regular levels, where it remains today. This trend has remained steady even after the Costa Concordia sank off the coast of Italy last year and the Carnival Triumph caught fire in February. Once the Carnival Cruise representatives finish polishing the company’s briefly tarnished reputation, I doubt even the more recent power failure on the Carnival Dream–and the temporary kidnapping of its passengers–will deter vacationers from sailing.
This says quite a lot about the habits and desires of Americans in general. Apparently, in a time of disaster and economic turmoil, company shareholders enjoy stability and growth at the expense of their hired help. Despite the readily available information about terrible employee compensation and working conditions, people still act like life working on a cruise ship mirrors life as a passenger. People tend to ignore what they don’t want to see. After all, they are on vacation. They only look for what makes them happy, which means turning a blind eye to everything else on board, as if to say, “It’s not my problem.” Likewise, when bad things do happen on board, “The public’s memory is short,” as NBC News’ cruise consultant Peter Whelpton notes. Short and selective.
In writing this, I carefully avoided comparing the situation to slavery. Some of the employees have made this comparison, but the parallel is unfair. These employees all get paid, have their own beds and television, enjoy air conditioning and decent food, and aren’t held against their will. Still, let’s be fair about this. Paltry contracts and the need for money can make anyone feel imprisoned. When recruiting agents don’t clearly explain the conditions of the job, resentment brews. I understand the retaliation, the anger, the feelings of abuse, and yet I cannot understand why this continues in a country concerned with equal rights. Steiner and A.W.C. make enough money to invest in a happier crew and, by extension, happier passengers. The CEO of CostCo recently announced that happy employees are the secret to his success. Steiner, A.W.C., and all of their clients need to pay close attention to this because they may learn something valuable. If the customers and employees were all happy aboard the ships, this industry could create a truly addictive vacation experience. The money would continue to roll in, and people would not scrutinize their ethics—at least not as frequently.
By doing nothing to improve the situation, Carnival encourages these problems. They take advantage of inexpensive labor to earn massive profits. Consider that they spent half a billion dollars on games, food, and jokes, instead of supplementing their employees’ quality of life. Carnival does not misunderstand what happens aboard their ships; they intentionally turn a blind eye to it. The company spends lavishly on First-World entertainment with a specific goal in mind: to increase shareholder profits. However, as I have mentioned before, Carnival is not alone in this. Other cruise lines operate in a similar fashion.
When I sailed on the Carnival Fascination, I could hardly believe the size. Who needs floating resorts? Who needs gold chandeliers in a French-themed restaurant while these employees live in cramped quarters and have no time to relax? An unquenchable thirst for leisure and fun has created a needless monstrosity. These ships have comedy clubs, casinos, restaurants, bars, stage plays, and gyms. Still, we have all of this on land already, don’t we? To again echo Caspian, “you might just as well stay ashore,” if not for your sake, then for theirs.
Unless otherwise linked, photos provided by David Grant.