The idea of working on a cruise ship, for many people, is an exciting idea. They might figure they can get free drinks, travel to exotic places, spend some time on the beaches, or otherwise reap the benefits of a luxurious travel job. After all, people who take cruises always come back from their vacations talking about palm trees, beautiful sunsets, steel drum music, endless boat drinks, and great shows on the ship, right? So why not just get paid to do something you love?
That might make sense when you think about it that way. But what I discovered, when I took an Eastern Caribbean Cruise, was that there’s a MASSIVE difference between the experience of people taking a cruise, and people working on a cruise ship. Of course, this might sound obvious, just in the same way that it’s different to go to a restaurant then it is to work at a restaurant.
But I’m telling you—it’s a much, much bigger difference than that. At least for me, in America, when I go out for dinner at a restaurant, I typically see another American serving my table, who is probably of the same economic status as me, or perhaps slightly less. But on a cruise ship, it’s a totally different ballgame. None of the rules apply. At an American restaurant, we have things like minimum wage laws, labor practice laws governing things like overtime, unfair work practices, and a lot more. Plus, when I’m chowing down on a pizza at a sports bar, I never ask myself: “I wonder how many days my server has been working without a break.” Because… why would you ask that?
So, having said all that, when I took a cruise to the Caribbean, it was a good experience overall, but I spent a lot of time talking to the employees who actually worked on the ship. And I was not just surprised—I was shocked at just how different life is for an employee of a cruise ship. Honestly, working on a cruise ship sucks. I’ll list some of these observations below.
Please note: I have never worked on a cruise ship or for a cruise ship company in any capacity, so my perspective is totally based on what I observed, and what I was told by the cruise employees I spoke to. (On that note, if you are or have been an employee of a cruise line, feel free to comment at the bottom and chime in with your own experience or perspective).
By far, the biggest surprise I had when talking to cruise ship employees was the fact that they work every single day for months at a time. I literally mean every… single… day… without a single day off, for months. No Saturdays, no Sundays, no holidays. When you’re on the ship, you are always on.
I was curious about how this was even possible, and they told me it’s because they work on a contract basis. So whereas the typical American worker that gets hired as a full-time employee basically enters an agreement that says: “we agree to hire you, in perpetuity, unless you quit or we fire you,” they only work for a very specific period of time. I met employees with 6 month contracts, 7 month contracts, and 9 month contracts. The day the contract is up, they’re out of a job unless they get a new contract.
What does that have to do with working 7 days a week? Well, again, unlike the typical American worker whose employment agreement has “office hours” that state when you’re expected to report to work, and has days off and vacation time and sick time built in, the contract that a cruise employee has is for every single day for the number of months they work. You have a 6 month contract? You’re working for six months—every single day of that six months.
Yes, as I understand, they get breaks and time off each day for lunch, and time to sleep, etc. But they work every single day of their contract. Think about that: if you have a 6 month contract, that means you will literally work for 182 days without a single day off, then your contract is over. Is that fair? I suppose so, in the sense that it’s in the contract when the worker signs it, so they could never say “I didn’t know.” But does it… feel fair? I’m less convinced of that.
I will say this though: the people I spoke to about their contracts didn’t necessarily view it as a bad thing. One guy I spoke to who had a 7 month contract told me that when his contract was over, he’d go back to his country and take three months off. I suppose if you make enough money to be able to do this, that may be a nice perk. (Who wouldn’t want to take three months off work?). But, again, this is a surprising fact that would likely shock most American tourists who patronize these cruise ships, not knowing that the people working there are any different than a “normal” restaurant or hotel.
This could be a sensitive topic, but I’ll try my best to give it the justice it deserves. You know the whole discussion about people who come to America from poor countries, possessing a limited skill set, and work hard-labor jobs and tend to live in relative poverty because they’re paid so little for the work they do? And how some people look at that and say: “It’s a tragedy! They should be paid a living wage!” and how other people look at this and say: “Yes, but it’s better than where they came from”?
Cruise ships are like that. As I mentioned, working more than 180 days in a row without a day off seems, to an American, like an abusive situation. But, and this is a big but—almost ALL of the workers on a cruise ship are not American. At least on the cruise I took: I looked carefully at the name tags of the employees I saw, and since they all have their home countries listed on their nametags (to make it feel more exotic?), it’s very easy to know where they come from. On my cruise, I spotted exactly ONE employee from the USA—the cruise director.
Everybody else on the ship, as far as I could tell, was from poor, sometimes war-torn, often tiny little countries that Americans don’t really know about or remember studying in elementary school. I met cruise ship workers from all over the world: the Philippines, Macedonia, Bosnia, Peru, Mexico, Bulgaria, Indonesia, Jamaica, Thailand, and many more. Some are from countries that a typical American couldn’t even identify as a country or point to on a map. Seriously: when have you ever met someone from Grenada? I did, on a cruise ship. I still know almost nothing about Grenada.
My point here is that the very long hours and very long contracts would not be tolerated by many people in “developed” nations. But that’s just it: the employees on these ships aren’t from developed nations. So is this exploitation? Or is it a good thing that cruise lines are hiring people from countries with limited upward mobility?
My conclusion, after much consideration is: I’m not sure. But what I’m pretty sure of is that most cruise goers don’t know this. Or even if they do see that their server at dinner has a name tag that says “China” on it, there’s no way they can possibly know anything other than that their server is from China. They know nothing about the ship’s employment practices. If they did, they would likely be outraged.
This one confused me for a while until I did some research after I got back. I started to think: “Hmm… they let you smoke on the ship. They allow gambling. They make their employees work for months without a day off. How is that even legal?”
Then it dawned on me: they don’t have to abide by the rules you would expect because they’re working on a cruise ship. A cruise SHIP! Get it? It’s a boat—it leaves the country where it starts (the USA, in my case), and goes out into international waters where none of the laws of that country apply.
It’s hard to believe it, because we, as mainlanders, who live within the borders of our own country all day, every day, can’t imagine being able to flout the laws of the land whenever we want just by leaving. But that’s exactly what a cruise ship does—it leaves a country, after picking up thousands of paying customers, and takes them far, far away from that country, completely unaccountable to the laws of the land.
So it all makes sense now: in my case, the ship I was one went over 2,500 miles away from the USA (as the crow flies). Why on earth would it be beholden to the labor laws of the USA? It isn’t. That’s why they’re able to do what they do.
This is perhaps one of the most shocking revelations of all, probably because it seems like such an obvious loophole that it’s hard to believe anyone can get away with it. Here’s how it works: a cruise ship that starts in an American port, picks up American passengers, accepts American dollars, and takes Americans all over the seas, then drops them back off in America is… what: an American ship, subject to the jurisdiction and laws of America?
WRONG! If it was American, it would fly an American flag. But funny enough, next time you walk around on your cruise ship, take a look at the flag being proudly flown on your vessel. Unless you’re sailing on the “Pride of America,” there’s a 100% chance your ship is NOT flying an American flag, no matter if it started and ended in America, and is run by an American company. (Also, bad news: the Pride of America is owned and run by Norwegian Cruise Lines, so it’s not even American).
Here’s the dirty secret: cruise ships fly under the flag of bizarrely unknown nations you might think of as poor and third-world countries, and that’s the whole point. Why? Because a ship is only subject to the laws of the country whose flag it flies under. Starting to get the picture? What are poor, developing South American countries famous for? Well, aside from military coups, one thing they’re famous for is not having any serious labor laws. And therein lies the reason that a cruise ship would intentionally seek to fly under the flag of such a nation. It’s called flying a “flag of convenience,” and it’s, well, rather convenient.
This is no joke: on the cruise I took, the ship was built in Italy, and is owned and run by a company based in the United States of America and the United Kingdom. It sails from Port Canaveral Florida, to the Caribbean, then back to Florida, exclusively filled with United States nationals.
The port of registry on this clearly Italian/American/British Ship? Panama. Why? Weak labor laws, that’s why. Are you surprised? They literally pick the country that gives them the most freedom on the seas and choose that. Don’t believe me? Check out this article that proves it: Panama is the second-largest country for foreign ship registries.
After all this, you may wonder: “So, what can we do about this? Is it bad? Should I go on that Caribbean Cruise, or not?” That’s a tough question, and one I can’t answer for anyone for myself.
Personally, I’ve decided that I probably won’t take another cruise. That’s mostly because I didn’t really enjoy my first cruise experience, though. I don’t think I can tell anyone not to take a cruise. But one thing I’m SURE of, is that people would think twice before taking a cruise if they had any idea about how difficult the working conditions are on a cruise ship. I don’t blame them—the cruise lines are very good at only showing the glitzy, glamorous side of a cruise, and they never, ever even hint at the hard work their tireless employees working nine months without a break put it.
Ultimately, it’s up to you, but please be educated in whatever decision you make. Hopefully my thoughts here will help you as you try to make the right choice.