The Guardian February 19, 2003

Report takes aim at "sweatships"

by Tim Pelzer

Two British organisations recently released a report that paints a grim 
picture of working conditions on cruise ships, tarnishing the fun, romantic 
image that the cruise ship industry has cultivated.

"Cruise ship employees ... are often excited by the thought of working for 
such world-famous names as Disney or Carnival or Princess, in luxury 
conditions with the chance to see the world and earn money at the same time 
the report's author Celia Mather, in Sweatships: What It's Really Like to 
Work On Board Cruise Ships, published by the UK-based War On Want (WOW) and 
the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF).

The cruise ship industry's 150,000 employees are confined to cramped, 
confined spaces on six- to 10-month non-stop contracts. Workers from poor 
countries of Latin America, Asia and Central/Eastern Europe are largely 
consigned menial work in ships' restaurants, bars, cabins and loading bays.

Women are concentrated in non-technical services such as hotel work and 
catering. These workers are segregated from everyone else and are not 
permitted to go on the upper decks where passengers reside, except for 
those who must work with passengers directly.

In contrast, managers, officers, technical staff, entertainers, medical 
staff and engineers come from industrialised countries such as the UK, US 
and Italy. They have more spacious living conditions, have their own 
private restaurants, and have access to upper decks and some facilities 
enjoyed by passengers.

Noting that workers from poor nations are servicing passengers who largely 
come from the white population of the rich industrialised nations, Mather 
writes that, "It is very reminiscent of colonial days. But perhaps more 
accurately it can be seen as a microcosm of today's global economy."

Mather says that fierce competition among cruise lines has led to greater 
efforts, "to squeeze greater value out of their workforce", by paying low 
wages for long hours of work.

For example, Carnival Cruise Lines monthly pay ranges from US $1000 per 
month, for a laundry worker for a 10-12 hour day, $700 per month for a cook 
for a 10-12 hour day, to a bar waiter who earns $50 (the rest of their 
income comes from tips) per month for a 12-14 hour day.

In addition, an ITF study of 400 cruise ship workers found that the average 
work week was seven days a week, 12-14 hours per day. Only unionised 
vessels pay overtime but this is not the case on non-unionised ships where 
there is no system to record overtime. Lines such as Carnival provide no 
sick pay.

To add insult to injury, Mather says that many workers from poor countries 
must pay crewing agents to obtain jobs, "which means that many cruise ship 
workers end up working the first few months just to pay back their costs."

In addition, workers receive no pay  except a small allocation when they 
work  between contracts and may have to attend courses, for which they 
must bear the cost.

The report also points out that cruise ship workers complain of "systematic 
abuse" at the hands of managers. Mather writes that "in interviews, over 
and again, those working on cruise ships report authoritarian and even 
aggressive behavior by managers and supervisors, and rampant favoritism."

Enforcing discipline may entail a fine, and punishment can mean instant 
dismissal without appeal. Some crew members offer money or sex to obtain 
better jobs, or to keep supervisors happy. In addition, some men use their 
authority to gain sexual favours.

Sexual harassment is a persistent problem and while a number of large 
cruise ship companies have sexual harassment policies, many crew members 
are unaware of these policies.

A 1999 lawsuit compelled Carnival Cruises to reveal that between 1993-98 
there were 100 accusations of rape and sexual assault against women as well 
as men. Others are hesitant to report sexual harassment because they fear 
dismissal, "a very real possibility", adds Mather.

Given horrendous working conditions, many cruise lines deduct a portion of 
their workers wages, which are withheld until they complete their contracts 
to ensure that workers do not break their contracts and leave early. These 
same companies also hold onto the passports of their workers.

According to Mather, the International Council of Cruise Ship Lines (ICCL) 
 an industry association consisting of cruise ship lines and their 
suppliers  drafted a "shipboard Workplace Code of Conduct" at the end of 

This code guarantees workers better working and living conditions, but it 
is voluntary and devoid of monitoring or verification procedures. The ITF 
calls the code, "little more that a PR sop to public opinion, given the 
well-documented and widespread abuses."

Mather asserts that while international law, as set down by the UN's 
International Labour Organisation and International Maritime Organisation, 
compel employers to provide seafarers with decent living and working 
conditions as well as collective bargaining rights, enforcement depends on 
the will of national governments subscribing to these agreements.

However, as Mather notes, most cruise lines have registered and fly under 
the flags of Panama, Bahamas and Liberia, "deliberately placing their ships 
under countries which have weak laws and even weaker enforcement, and are 
notorious for not enforcing international standards. This allows the 
companies to benefit from poor legal protection for the crew members, and 
little or no union movement in the country to defend them."

Furthermore, the report states that in order to forestall unionisation, 
"companies employ many different nationalities apparently in a deliberate 
attempt to prevent solidarity between workers building up.

The threat of instant dismissal hangs over most seafarers on board who try 
to organise together with their fellow workers to take up workplace 
issues", writes Mather.

To this end, cruise lines have also resorted to offering shorter contracts 
to workers. Even on unionized ships, the ITF has difficulty enforcing union 
agreements, especially when these ships are sailing in distant waters. 
Other cruise lines have blocked ITF inspectors from coming on board 

Asked if WOW/ITF's report of poor living and working conditions on cruise 
ships was true and if cruise lines were denying their workforce collective 
bargaining rights, ICCL spokeswoman Molly McPherson said, "no, it's not 

"Sweatships: What It Really Like to Work on Board Cruise Ships" is part of 
WOW and ITF's campaign to improve cruise ship workers living and working 
conditions. WOW and ITF launched the campaign because of mounting 
complaints from mistreated cruise ship workers.

More information about the ITF's cruise ship campaign and how you can 
support it can be obtained at:

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Tim Pelzer is a longshoreman and writer from Canada People's Weekly World, paper of Communist Party USA

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