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For Cruise Ship Workers, Voyages Are No Vacations

Labor: Many endure low pay and spartan conditions. Ship owners say the jobs provide opportunities to the poor.

May 30, 2000|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS and DAN WEIKEL | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

ABOARD THE CRUISE SHIP ELATION — 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.

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