Cruise ship travel continues to gain in popularity as passenger demand can barely keep up with fleet additions. The global cruise industry generated revenues of $37.1 billion in 2014, and is predicted to hit nearly $50 billion by year end 2018 when the number of passengers carried will exceed 25 million.
The huge spike in demand means lots of new jobs as waiters, cooks, bartenders, housekeepers and receptionists. But those jobs won’t go to American workers. Working on a cruise ship may seem the dream job — think The Love Boat — but the long hours required and the callously low pay offered mean that operators must depend on international employees, specifically Filipinos.
Cruise liner Royal Caribbean recently announced that it would hire 30,000 Filipino crew members over the next five years. Filipinos have few legal rights. Pursuant to an arbitration agreement, they’re required to return to Manila to make claims against their employers, and therefore are an easy target for exploitation.
Having just returned from my first-ever (and last) cruise, I had an opportunity to witness the employment practices up close. I immediately observed that not a single American worked on the ship even though, for a recent graduate or a student taking a year or two off, a cruise job would be perfect — assuming the conditions weren’t quasi-slave labor.
As one attendant told me, “If you’re awake, I’m working.”
Paul Chapman, a Baptist minister who founded the Center for Seafarers’ Rights in 1981, called the typical passenger ship “a sweatshop at sea,” an “ocean-going maquiladora” and claimed that if a ship owner wanted to maximize profits at the expense of people, “it’s a piece of cake.”
The Columbia School of Journalism joined with Univision Noticias in a four-month investigative report titled “Vacations in No Man’s Seas.” Among the report’s findings are that the multibillion-dollar cruise business operates under the laws of the overseas tax havens and where its ships are officially registered, which makes it one of the United States’ least regulated businesses.
Even though the industry uses the infrastructure of U.S. ports, the resources of the Navy, Coast Guard, Homeland Security, Customs & Border Protection, U.S. Public Health Service, Centers for Disease Control and Preservation and another 20 U.S. agencies for free, the cruise lines pay virtually no U.S. taxes.
Furthermore, in a chapter titled “Sweatshops on the High Seas,” the journalists wrote that cruise ship employees often work more than 70 hours a week, with little rest and no paid vacations. And as for the food they’re served, one employee compared it to eating in a high school cafeteria.
Just like every other big business, the cruise industry has spent generously lobbying Congress to keep its good thing (for them) going. From 1997 through 2014, the Cruise Lines International Organization and individual operators laid out more than $52 million lobbying Congress.
Understanding the surge in customer demand isn’t hard. The alluring television ads portray travelers’ every whim being catered to as they lounge around the pool, dine on fine cuisine or swirl the dance floor.
But the industry’s exploitative underbelly is ugly. Assuming fair pay and decent working conditions, Americans would do the cruise ship jobs. But it’s up to Congress to act in travelers’ and workers’ best interests, something that to date it has shown little interest in doing.
— Joe Guzzardi is a senior writing fellow for Californians for Population Stabilization (CAPS) who now lives in Pittsburgh. He can be reached at [email protected], or follow him on Twitter: @joeguzzardi19. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.