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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

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, 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."

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