Unholy Cruise

It is the curse of humanity that it learns to tolerate even the most horrible situations by habituation.” — Rudolf Virchow, physician

Recently I took my daughter on a 7-night cruise to the Caribbean. We were celebrating her graduation from college and acceptance into a wonderful graduate program in public health. What I had hoped would be a relaxing time turned out to be an emotionally-exhausting, spiritual eye-opener about the plight of employees.

Work hours for cabin attendants and wait staff on our cruise ship — I am not making this up — are typically 12-14 hours with some short breaks during the day — 7 days a week for 6 months straight.

Had I known this I would never have chosen a cruise for a vacation.

We felt like we were on a slave ship the entire week as many employees come from Romania, India, Jamaica, Indonesia, and other desperate areas where high unemployment, poverty, political strife, illiteracy, hunger and disease are the norm. Because of the tragic economic, political and social conditions in their home countries, these crew members are essentially forced into accepting appalling employment contracts, since the alternative — no job or working for even less money — is no real option.

During a question and answer session with passengers, the captain said the majority of employees — 70 percent — work 6 months on and have 6 weeks off. He went on to say about 10-15 percent of the employees have 8 month contracts.

Approximately 1200 employees and 3100 passengers were on the ship, a veritable city on the sea. This high ratio of employee to passenger is intentionally designed to insure an extraordinary level of service.

We were told the ship is the 3rd largest, built just 2 years ago in Turku, Finland at a cost of $650 million. The captain was asked why cruise ships are not registered in the United States. His reply highlighted the core of the crisis: In order for a ship to be registered in the U.S., he explained, requires the ship be built in the U.S., and be staffed with a minimum of 75 percent U.S. citizens.

Thus foreign port of registry permits the ship’s owners to sidestep fair labor practices and completely disregard existing U.S. labor laws which are designed to protect employees from abuses. Foreign registration also means that the cruise line benefits, by being able to hold down the cost of this kind of vacation, which appeals to passengers who look for the highest level of service at a discount. And it enables the cruise industry to turn a lovely profit and build more ships.

The immediate, obvious consequence of this grueling work schedule are the great sacrifices these mature adults and their families endure. In addition to being away from their loved ones and children for 6 or 8 months straight while they are working at tedious jobs — which has to be devastating for these children — crew members have little free time or energy left over after they call it quits for the day.

Unlike other struggling, disenfranchised workers in the U.S. who seek education to improve their station in life, these crew members have such limited free time they are impeded from taking correspondence courses which would help liberate them from a life of indentured service work.

In addition, they live in tight, 2-person cabins, with virtually no privacy.

When I inquired of the captain about the untenable work hours demanded of the staff, the captain’s response was blunt. They are well paid, he said. He was quick to add, many of the employees have re-signed contracts multiple times, as if their returning after being off for 6 weeks should prove to me they are indeed happy campers.

It is more likely they suffer the curse of humanity Virchow speaks of, tolerating a most horrible situation by habituation — or else out of desperation for any deal. A fair deal? A well-paying job? By whose standards? Americans? Europeans? His own? Hardly.

The captain told me everyone works 7 days a week. Including him he said. I found this surprising, but when I pressed him to find out what his exact work hours were, it was no surprise to learn he has a really good thing going.

The captain said his contract is 14 weeks straight and then he gets to enjoy 14 weeks off. Plus, the kicker, he gets to have his family come live with him in his spacious cabin whenever he wants. He told me they do whenever they are not in school.

The captain’s implication was unmistakable and alarming to me. I walked away with the message that the justification for taking advantage of people who have no reasonable alternative but to sign up in the first place with the cruise line and stay signed on in perpetuity, is these particular servants are more than adequately compensated for this inhumane treatment.

From the top of the corporation to the captain, down to the “repeat cruisers” who know of these abuses and choose this type of vacation anyway, there seems to be no apparent reason for them to believe their system of oppressing desperate people is in any way unethical or immoral.

Even if you are not an observer of traditional religious teachings and don’t honor the sabbath, it is still easy to see the beauty of the instruction to reserve at least one day out of every week and put all work aside. Everyone needs time for mental and physical rest, as well as time to be able to enjoy what blessings life can offer.

The tragedy here is that these ungodly hours aboard the cruise ship are not even illegal by the laws of the sea.

Another disturbing aspect about their employment contract has to do with how workers are paid. The cruise line made it clear to all passengers that their hard-working crew members depend heavily on passengers’ tips for the chunk of their income.

A form letter given to all passengers near the end of the week actually outlined minimum recommended amounts for tipping at least four members of the service staff. What amounted to essentially an edict guised as a “suggestion” placed the responsibility onto every guest on board. The tip amount: $68.25 per passenger for those with state room accommodations, and $84 per passenger for suite accommodations. That would amount to a minimum of $341.25 for a family of 5.

The serious flaw with this concerns the spending habits of passengers.

For example, if a passenger loses too much money in the casino on the ship, or spends too much money on their liquor bill (which is quite easy to do because the alcoholic drinks are not cheap), or spends too much money on pricey off-shore tour activities where the cruise line really rakes in profits, or spends too much money on shopping sprees in stores on board or at the ports of call, he or she most likely will not be inclined to tip crew members appropriately, or much less, generously. Thus, crew members are again taken advantage of.

And you can always find defiant people who believe they shouldn’t have to tip at all, since — as their thinking goes — employees are already getting paid a salary. These folks simply don’t believe it is their responsibility to contribute a fair tip.

No doubt cruise employees do earn more money than if they were home in their economically disadvantaged countries, and it is also true they at least have a job that they probably might otherwise not have back at home.

But none of that argument can justify taking advantage of hard-working people and denying them a quality of life or a day of rest in half a year.

Indeed, the exact same argument can and should be made in favor of workers of every race (legal or illegal citizens) who are employed in sweat shops and service jobs of every kind — from clothing factories to dry cleaners to seasonal field workers, gardeners, housekeepers and construction workers — whether they are invisible because they are under the radar screen of the governance of U.S. labor laws or are suffering unmercifully under the slave like ownership of employers with little or no conscience.

I do not want to shut down the cruise industry. What I seek is reform. Until then, I will not recommend to anyone to vacation on a cruise ship with these policies. To do so would be condoning and supporting man’s inhumanity against man.

Since returning from the cruise, I have spoken with many vacationers who already knew of these injustices. And still they took cruises, somehow justifying in their heads and hearts that they are doing these workers a favor by subsidizing an industry that gives people any kind of employment or an opportunity to support their families.

Shame on all those vacationers aware of these unholy contracts who seek relaxation and royal pampering at the expense of crew members.

It is because of this spiritual ignorance and insensitivity that the cruise industry is flourishing.

And more slave ships, even bigger ones, are being built as I write this.

As if all these problems weren’t upsetting enough, there exists another negative in the industry: Their complicity in the obesity epidemic.

Our cruise offered unlimited food for the price of the ticket, and encouraged passengers to “try it all.” And they did just that. During dinner on the last night of the cruise, an employee proudly announced over a microphone, that collectively we had set a new record for the amount of food consumed in one week.

The captain had previously handed out stats for the ship that included a partial list of food served on the cruise:

44,900 lbs. of meat and seafood (including 69,000 steaks prepared)
28,000 eggs
15,000 lbs. of flour
8,000 gallons of ice cream
18,000 slices of pizza
83,000 lbs. of vegetables
35,600 lbs. of fruit
5,800 lbs. of cheese
4,300 lbs. of sugar

used to make 105,000 meals that included 300,680 prepared desserts and 234,000 appetizers. That’s 10 desserts per day for each person on board.

This also means that during the week, the average person consumed nearly 10 1/2 lbs. of meat and seafood, about 2 gallons of ice cream, a pound of sugar and 1 1/3 lbs. of cheese … you get the idea. Literally tons of food. 62.2 tons, not including the eggs, ice cream, pizza, milk, soft drinks and alcohol.

The evidence was easy to see in the number of obese people on board. It was simply alarming to observe their overeating, as was seeing the unholy waste of food everywhere. The greatest number of obese people from what I could determine, not surprisingly, were the Americans — though there were plenty of others from around the world.

Without question the cruise industry is responsible for encouraging people to over indulge and to create such wastes of food supplies. They nourish an unhealthy mindset of passengers. Many passengers are simply motivated to “get all their monies worth” and more.

Crew members who come from places where people suffer from hunger and poverty could only be repulsed, just as I and other passengers were, by the daily display of gluttony and waste that will continue to occur every day aboard ship unless people of conscience press for reform.

I ask you to join me in helping end the ignorance and abuses and share this information.

“When you know better you do better.” — Oprah

— Giselle M. Massi © May 2005