Global Policy Forum

For Cruise Ship Workers, Voyages Are No Vacations


By Christopher Reynolds and Dan Weikel

Los Angeles Times
May 30, 2000

Every Saturday night, as this Carnival ship glides toward its home port of Los Angeles, a thousand passengers holler and applaud when their waiters and busboys parade past them on the Atlantic Deck. Recruited from some of the world's poorest nations, the workers now sport star-spangled vests and raise their accented voices in a rousing rendition of "God Bless America." Below, in the crew quarters, the scene is less festive. As on scores of ships throughout the North American cruise industry, these workers retreat at shift's end to row upon row of small, grim cabins, where they will sleep off another 14-hour day and rise to wonder if they can endure the months ahead without a day off.

While their families and relatives stay behind in Manila or Bali or Bombay, crew members flock to Los Angeles, Miami and other North American ports for the chance to creep up a wage scale that often begins at less than $2 an hour. These workers--an estimated 60,000 of them--may have been taken for granted by most of the 5.9 million U.S. passengers who boarded cruise ships last year. But their long hours and modest pay are some of the secrets behind the comforts passengers enjoy and the ample profits reaped by more than 140 ships in the North American cruise market.

As the industry on the West Coast heads into its peak travel season this summer, almost 500,000 people will depart on cruises from the Port of Los Angeles--a 47% increase since 1990. Los Angeles Harbor is now home to three ships: Carnival's Elation and Holiday and Royal Caribbean's Viking Serenade. They sail once or twice a week with roughly 5,000 passengers and 2,200 crew members.

Overlooking the Work Force

Even in Southern California, which is surpassed only by south Florida as a region crucial to the industry, the large work force behind the cruise business is often overlooked. The typical passenger ship is "a sweatshop at sea," an "ocean-going maquiladora," charged Paul Chapman, a Baptist minister who founded the Center for Seafarers Rights in New York in 1981. "A ship owner can go any place in the world, pick up anybody he wants, on almost any terms. If the owner wants to maximize profit at the expense of people, it's a piece of cake."

Among workers, the tales of jobs gone awry are common: The $422-a-month Costa Rican cleaning woman who contracted gangrene while under a doctor's care and lost a hand. The crew members who made under-the-table payments to recruiters for jobs that didn't exist. The injured seafarer who was sent by his employer to a foreign country for medical care, with dire consequences. At Windjammer Barefoot Cruises, 31 crewmen were lost in 1998 after their ship put to sea despite an approaching hurricane. At another cruise line, Royal Caribbean, workers have accused the company in court of underpaying wages by $55 million since 1996.

"Sure, you make some money," said former Carnival chef Luis Rodriguez, 45, of Colombia. "But it's so risky, that kind of money. To tell you the truth, it's like jail, with a few more accommodations. You don't see your family. You don't see land most of the time." The majority of vessels in the North American market are owned by Carnival Corp., Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. and Princess Cruises. With their subsidiaries, those three enterprises sail 72 ships and carry 78% of the trade, yet operate largely outside American labor and tax laws.

In 1999 alone, Carnival grossed almost $3.5 billion and posted operating profits of 29%, but paid less than $3 million in U.S. income taxes. To reduce labor costs, the companies have turned to dozens of Third World countries for laundry workers, cleaners, busboys, waiters, cabin stewards and galley workers. Recruits come from the Philippines and Indonesia--two traditional sources of seafarers--as well as Central America, the Caribbean, Central Asia and Eastern Europe.

Cruise line executives contend that in today's global economy, the industry offers greater opportunities for Third World workers than can be found in their homelands. Some crew members agree, saying they've parlayed their earnings into new homes and businesses. In a good month, a cruise ship waiter can pull down $2,000 to $3,000 in tips, tax-free.

"I see people lining up in droves for these jobs," says Larry Kaye, a 20-year maritime attorney in San Diego who counts several large cruise lines among his clients. "They get free medical care, they get room and board, they travel all over the world. There's no slave-ship labor issue here." But shipboard visits, dozens of interviews with cruise line workers, and reviews of court documents in California and Florida show that this chase after a better life often ends in disappointment or injury and occasionally in death.

In a speech to cruise line executives at the Seatrade Cruise Shipping Convention in 1998, a recruiting consultant, Stephen J. Renard, noted that the average length of employment for a cruise line worker was just 5.8 months, hardly enough time to build a nest egg. "There are those who still think we are in the Dark Ages, and don't treat their staffs with respect," Renard said. "When will the industry learn that human beings are our industry and must be treated so they will have pride in their job and enjoy the day's work?"

Drawn by the promise of higher wages than at home, many recruits are willing to plunge themselves or their families into debt for the chance to work for a cruise line. "Life on board is rough, but it is better than anything I can find in India," said a 28-year-old waiter, who regularly works 18-hour days and earns up to $700 a week aboard the Viking Serenade. He and several of his Indian shipmates said they had to borrow up to $1,500 each to secure their first cruise line positions. Workers frequently have to pay for training, pre-employment physical exams, plane tickets to and from their ships, and recruiters' fees. According to interviews of crew members, those upfront expenses and payments to manning agents at home and abroad ranged from $500 to $4,000 apiece.

Manning agents generally receive fees from cruise lines and are forbidden by international conventions from extracting further payments from prospective workers. But recruits say under-the-table demands are common.

Suit Claims Workers Were Fired and Stranded

In one Miami lawsuit, 10 Central Americans said in sworn affidavits that they had to make payments of up to $1,300 each on the side to recruiters to become waiters on a new cruise ship. Their attorney, David C. Rash, said all 10 were fired after two months and left stranded in Port Everglades, Fla., because their ship never obtained its foreign registration.

New hires "have to work half their contracts or more to pay all these costs. . . . If they want to have something to show for their time, they need to get a side job, extend their contracts, or both," said Capt. David Goff, a Florida inspector for the International Transport Workers Federation, known as ITF. The London-based federation is an alliance of more than 500 transportation unions from around the world. Goff interviewed roughly 100 Carnival and Royal Caribbean crew members for a 1998 ITF study of cruise line working conditions.

Once recruited, most shipboard workers agree by contract to work every day for five to 10 months. Unlike officers and entertainers, low-level workers are banned from passenger areas while off-duty. They eat in crew cafeterias, drink in a crew bar and sleep on the ship's lowest decks, usually two, four or six people to a small cabin.

The cleaners, laundry workers and galley workers who share those cramped accommodations often make less than $2 an hour, frequently earning extra income by doing laundry or cleaning on the side for waiters and stewards, who pay them out of their own pockets. Though the waiters, busboys, bartenders and room stewards draw wages of just $50 to $80 a month, they can make tips of up to $3,000 if they stay healthy, draw full tables, and serve customers who follow tipping rates suggested by the company.

It all comes at a price, however, says a 24-year-old waiter aboard Royal Caribbean's Viking Serenade. "I work 6:30 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week for six months," he said. "I get four to five hours of sleep a night." None of the lines contacted by The Times disclosed their wage figures. But transport federation officials, who say their affiliate unions have labor contracts for more than 17,000 passenger ship crew members, offer some general numbers.

From 1993 to 1998, the ITF's "model agreement"--terms that union negotiators aim for--boosted minimum pay from $435 to $529 monthly for the lowest-paid general utility employees, and from $720 to $880 in wages and tips combined for waiters, cooks and stewards.

Assuming 10-hour work days, that means the union's goal is $1.75 hourly for the lowliest workers, and $2.90 hourly for the waiters, cooks and stewards. But many workers fall short of those amounts. Aside from the union toehold in the industry, crew members have little protection against low pay and long hours because virtually all cruise lines in the North American market are incorporated outside the U.S. and their ships are registered under foreign flags. As such, U.S. labor laws don't apply to crew members.

Defending the cruise industry, Jane Adams, a spokeswoman for Disney, said that room, board and medical care are free for the crew. Julie Benson of Princess said the working environment at her line is so good that "90% of our crews return for another contract." Several cruise line executives contend that the constant stream of new ships and the growing demand for labor are driving improvements in wages and conditions. Vance Gulliksen, a spokesman for Carnival, said the line has increased pay in recent years and created a retirement plan in 1998.

Language Barriers Can Be Deadly

Because companies recruit in dozens of countries, plaintiffs' attorneys and federal transportation investigators have questioned whether crew members can properly communicate with their shipmates and passengers, especially during emergencies. The language barrier may have contributed directly to the serious injury of Polish repairman Marek Czerniak. Court records show that Czerniak, 40, was working aboard the Norwegian Cruise Lines ship Norway in February 1997 when his boss directed him in English to prepare to weld an area of the smokestack.

But Czerniak, who said he neither speaks nor reads English, claims he did not realize that repairmen were forbidden from that kind of smokestack work while the vessel was in operation. As he stood in the funnel, a burst of hot water and steam blasted him, severely burning his back, legs and one arm. Czerniak sued, and settled last year for a $2.5-million payment from the cruise line. The line's attorney called the case "an unfortunate situation" in which Czerniak was partially to blame. Yet compared to some other workers, Czerniak was lucky.

When fire broke out in the laundry of the Universe Explorer about 3 a.m. July 27, 1996, off the coast of Alaska, smoke billowed into passageways and cabins in the crew's quarters. Four Filipino stewards and a Central American galley worker died. Fifty-five of their shipmates and a passenger were injured.

A review by the National Transportation Safety Board found poor coordination in the crew's emergency response, and several passengers said they had difficulty understanding the limited English spoken by many crew members. The ship, known for its "semester at sea" program for students, is operated by World Explorer Cruises in San Francisco. Ron Valentine, the director of operations, said that since the fire, the company has improved safety procedures and passed U.S. Coast Guard inspections.

The International Council of Cruise Lines, the industry's trade organization, asserts that cruising remains one of the safest modes of travel. A 1996 Coast Guard study found that over a 10-year period, not one passenger death because of a marine incident was reported on any cruise vessel operating from a U.S. port.

When someone is injured, cruise lines turn to their on-board doctors for immediate care, but those physicians do not have to be licensed in the U.S. or other industrial countries because of the ships' foreign-flag status. In serious cases requiring surgery or care over a sustained period, the lines often send injured workers to foreign countries or their homelands--a move that plaintiffs' attorneys decry as a money-saving maneuver and a way to prevent crew members from contacting U.S. lawyers if things go wrong. Medical care in many foreign nations, they argue, is not just cheaper but also is inferior to that available in many industrial countries. "As soon as a worker is injured," said Miami plaintiffs' attorney William Huggett, "they abandon him on a Third World trash heap like a used tire."

Court records show that a Costa Rican cleaning woman contracted gangrene while under the care of Panamanian doctors and had to have her hand amputated. Another plaintiff, a Caribbean utility man, says a ship's doctor handed him a pair of gloves and told him to conduct his own rectal exam. In May 1998, Antonio Cassarino, 48, an Italian plumber, twisted his back while working aboard the Holiday, a Carnival ship Antonio Cassarino claims to have suffered a back injury while employed as a cruise ship plumber. ROBERT GAUTHIER / Los Angeles Times based in Los Angeles. His attorney, Howard D. Sacks of San Pedro, said the veteran crewman underwent three operations in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, purportedly to remove a damaged lumbar disc.

But a Long Beach orthopedist who has treated Cassarino concluded that the surgeries were unnecessary because Cassarino suffered only a sprained back. Sacks said his client wanted to be treated in the United States or Italy, but Carnival sent him to Puerto Vallarta, where he maintained a residence. Earlier this year, Carnival settled with Cassarino on the eve of trial in Long Beach Superior Court. The agreement is confidential.

Passenger line executives contend that it is logical and humane to send workers to their home countries for medical care. Language barriers have to be overcome in the United States, they say, and crew members are more comfortable near friends and family.

Few Union Gains on Passenger Ships

Industry critics say that pay, medical care and working conditions could improve if labor unions build on their beachhead. But among the dozens of unions around the world that have shipboard collective bargaining agreements, few, if any, can claim dramatic gains aboard passenger vessels. The last major labor action aboard a North American cruise ship was back in 1981, when 240 Central American workers went on strike aboard a Carnival ship in Miami to protest the firings of two co-workers.

It ended in failure. Carnival called the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and the strikers were declared illegal immigrants, bused to the airport and flown home, unemployed.

The International Transport Workers Federation, one of the strongest maritime unions in the world, has agreements with cruise lines and foreign maritime unions to enforce labor contracts for roughly 17,400 passenger ship crew members. ITF officials say, however, that the organization is short-handed and its historical emphasis has been contract enforcement aboard cargo vessels. Consequently, they say, the federation rarely has time to inspect cruise ships or handle complaints from their crews. Similarly, the Norwegian Seaman's Union, which operates from a 400-square-foot office in Miami, has only two employees to cover the entire United States. The union claims to work on behalf of seafarers aboard Norwegian cruise ships, such as those owned by Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Lines. But dues payments often flow directly from the companies to the union, and many seafarers under the union's umbrella say they are unaware that they are represented at all.

Johan Oyen, the Miami-based director of cruise operations for the union, said making improvements in the cruise industry is very difficult, but pay and working conditions would be far worse without the union. Crew members say they have found the union's grievance process slow and frustrating, as did Rosita Haylock, 45, of Canada, a veteran cruise line nurse who worked for Norwegian Cruise Lines until July.

Haylock, who claims that she and her colleagues are owed millions of dollars in overtime, said her grievance is still unresolved almost a year after it was filed. She also contends that Norwegian Cruise Lines refused to renew her contract because of her complaints. Haylock at least had the opportunity to file a formal grievance. Many foreign cruise workers who may want to lodge complaints about working conditions or contest their terminations never get the chance. "If you see a hole in the deck, you just walk around it," said a Costa Rican cruise ship worker who was enjoying a rare day off at Seafarers' House, a religious and recreational center for mariners in Port Everglades. The worker and his shipmates said that if crew members complain about shipboard conditions, they will be fired and immediately sent home even if they are right.

Those banished by the lines often find themselves being escorted off their vessels, sometimes in handcuffs, by private security guards who take them to hotel rooms where they are held incommunicado until they can be flown home. One of them was Jesus Esteban, a 30-year-old Filipino crewman who was fired in May 1996 and removed from the Viking Serenade, based in Los Angeles. Ray Familathe, a longshoreman and former ITF inspector who got a tip about Esteban, recalled seeing him in the lobby of the Doubletree Hotel in San Pedro, weeping.

The security guard refused to let Familathe talk to Esteban, who apparently did not understand why he was fired. Familathe said he called the port police, but was told they had no legal basis to intervene. The guard finally took Esteban to the airport and put him on a plane bound for the Philippines. "Welcome to the global economy," Familathe said.

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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.