The story below is a bit long, but is well-worth reading.  It describes a US-flagged cruise line,  which normally is better toward employees than foreign-flagged vessels.  However, the experience described suggests that US-flagged vessels are only better by degrees -- staff are still exploited, oppressed, and abused.  The story speaks for itself, so read on.............

I worked from January until July of 2005 for Cruise West, a U.S. flagged cruise line based in Seattle, Washington.  I have a college degree and a background in social work and I taught English as a second language in Korea for almost three years, and then returned home. I was 32 years old when I took the job as a "customer service representative" (CSR) on Cruise West's 102 passenger ship cruising Baja, Mexico.  I thought I needed to try something different for a change of pace, and since I couldn't afford a cruise ticket, I could try being on the other side of the industry.  It offered an opportunity for adventure, travel, and the chance to save some money to pay for my new educational goals.

And yet—I had no idea what I was getting myself into.  From the very beginning, even this American flagged ship, lied to me about working conditions before I signed on.  I was told I would have one day off each week.  When I got on board people laughed, saying that the days off wouldn't happen.  In ten weeks of working an average of fourteen hour days, all at break-neck speed sometimes so exhausting that I would find myself crying often when I had a moment to myself (in rare moments, usually while cleaning toilets), I had two days off, and I spent one of them throwing up and lying on the floor of my cabin, horribly sick.  (If I had been sick for another day or two I would have been sent home--there was talk about it).

There were five (although there were supposed to be six) of us CSRs throughout most of the season in Mexico; we waited on tables and cleaned cabins.  Ten cabins each, every day with three broken vacuum cleaners that would barely suck up the sand from the carpets on "beach days."  "That's the way things are," everyone who worked for the cruiseline said when I tried to complain about working conditions, "that's how they make their money."  Our cruiseline charged something like four times as much as the larger cruiselines, but still couldn't afford to serve crew anything other than mysterious meat and big piles of rice and bread and corndogs (always corndogs!) for crew meals, for instance.

I saw beautiful things in Mexico, through the portholes of the boat, when I had time to look.  You could say that I could have quit, except that before I took the job I had packed most of my belongings into storage, and I didn't have a job or an apartment, or any savings really to fall back on.  Also there was this adrenaline rush to being able to succeed, even under what were frequently vile working conditions. 

Here is another example of what was rags were often still damp--so not properly dried from one washing to the next (deckhands did the washing) and I would notice people using only one rag to clean all of their ten rooms, even on turn-around day.  I complained about this to the hotel manager, since it's against "procedure" and he gave me sort of a wink and a nod and said he would look into it.  Yet we were instructed to spend less than ten minutes per cabin doing everything from restocking towels to cleaning toilets and dusting and cleaning windows and mirrors, changing sheets, and vacuuming the main carpet and mopping the bathroom floor.  Unless you "cheated" by skipping something or doing it quickly and badly, ten minutes, in my calculations, was not enough time to accomplish all of these tasks.

Ships are run to make a profit, and this usually comes at the expense of crew members who have to pay as much as $25 even for an emergency call to their families (while I was on-board my mother was rushed to the hospital for a heart problem, and it took several days for me to both receive the message and have the opportunity to call out).  The ship was a very isolated and isolating world where your immediate environment is all of the life that you have.

I guess that you can probably imagine a lot of this.  I come from a service background and I enjoyed many aspects of "creating an experience" for passengers on-board the ship.  I even liked the physical labor itself, although the emotional labor of being happy all of the time and smiling (even though I was aching in every muscle of my body--and I'm a strong person who can easily run 10k on land) got exhausting after so many days of working without much opportunity for respite, and not the slightest bit of compassion or kindness or praise from supervisors or administrators. 

For example, after my exhausting ten weeks contract in Mexico I was given poor marks in my employee evaluation for “flexibility.”  I think this meant that I complained too much about all of the duties that kept being added into our fourteen hour days…like at one point we were seriously asked by the management to approach guests five different times during their dinner service to ask them if they wanted an alcoholic beverage…for passengers and crew alike this was tacky and overkill and it didn’t make any sense, and I said so.  They wanted us to be “flexible” and to, above all, not complain, though, and I was not compliant in this sense.

What frustrates—and frustrated me most is that the cruise industry doesn't need to behave in this way.  It could provide safer and better conditions for workers, without very much added effort or expense, since it is in the small things that make such a big difference in life on-board a ship, and yet they simply choose not to. For example, my boat was actually marketed toward the more environmentally and labor conscious, upper-income “guests” who thought because they were paying so much more for a cruise that they were "getting more."  I’m not sure how many of them realized that the same people who cleaned their cabins also served cocktails in the lounge, meals in the dining room and drinks and cookies on the beach in the hot Mexico sunshine.  Or that in Alaska a friend of mine who was first mate and chief engineer on a smaller boat in the same fleet worked for three months straight at seventeen hours and no less than fourteen days, with increasing difficulties with insomnia from lack of respite time.

I think that my educational background gave me more confidence than some others had to complain about our working conditions, although I was just voicing what others were experiencing sometimes even more intensely than I was, I quickly stood out as the trouble-maker. I remember one guy from the galley saying to me, "people think it's so great to work on a cruise ship--they don't know, it's more like a slave ship."  This poor guy worked in the salad room for something like sixty days straight and when they finally gave him his time off he disappeared into thin air, never returning to the galley at all, and the management appeared—of course—surprised.

Keep in mind, if you will, that the boat I worked on had consistently the highest ratings from passengers of any other boat in the cruise fleet, we were well-loved, even, frequently mentioned by name on passenger response cards, and yet it was consistently, despite, not due to the frequent and disturbing cost-cutting decisions by management.

At one point I was all but accused of "time theft" by two different managers for taking twenty-minutes instead of ten to clean passenger rooms, although I did this to be conscientious.  I liked the proud feeling that you have when you've actually done something well—even cleaning a toilet.  And yet the priorities given to us were speed and appearance.  The people who cleaned fastest (the more corners they could cut the better) were promoted fastest.  Absolutely.  One girl I know is still with the company, and is a supervisor.  She’s one who did all of her rooms with only one dirty rag. The management eventually left me alone about being “too slow”, but I was never praised for taking extra time to do the best job that I could, and I was never encouraged to continue doing it.  Even with our tremendously low hourly wages, faster was always better.  Always.  That’s how they make their money.  Cutting corners.  It’s no wonder they wanted us to do the same.

I know I'm probably going to sound like just another disgruntled employee here when I get to the end of my story, but I'll have to take that risk, anyway.  I know that there are thousands and thousands of stories like mine, many of them worse, but here is the one that I can tell, and I just pray that you are interested enough to continue reading:

I went to Alaska with the same cruiseline after the Mexico season, partly to see Alaska, and partly just to see how long I could make it in the challenging  cruise hotel industry.  What I didn't realize until I was actually in Alaska was that the cruiseline had effectively cut thirty-percent from each hotel service staff's paychecks.

They did this in two ways:

One was by "recalculating overtime" so that after six weeks, when we got off the boat on a Thursday, our unpaid "vacation" time would also be in the loss of overtime, despite more than twelve hour days.  When they told us they were going to recalculate overtime weekly instead of daily "but it won't make any difference in your paycheck" we knew this was not true, and yet, were expected to be too stupid to read the numbers in our checkbooks.  Lying to the crew was very, very common on that cruiseline, and yet it was very hard to believe that someone could be looking straight at you and telling you such lies.  On top of exhausting twelve hour days, it was a tough emotional game to ride out.

Second, and probably even more importantly, the cruise decided to switch to a "no-tipping" system that summer.  But they explained the new system one way to the staff, and a very different way to the passengers.  They told the crew that we could still receive tips if we could earn them and "passengers have been tipping for over a hundred years and they aren't going to stop now."  We would receive a “higher” hourly wage ($5.80 for new crew, $6.40 for returning crew) and then any tips on top of that, plus room and board.  What we did not realize, and perhaps we were naive, or stupid, or trusting or however you want to put it, was that passengers were paying $80 in "included gratuities" each, per trip, but that the included gratuities were just not going directly to the staff.  If you do the math, the cruiseline was benefiting tremendously from the altered tipping policy (they also told passengers that we were being "well taken care of" and told us, specifically, we could not tell people how much we were making per hour). 

To be honest, this was yet another exhausting mind game.  If trust is also many times a difficult thing with a land-based employer when you are also land-based, how much more difficult is it when you are literally and figuratively at sea.  And your employer is not there with you. And you are constantly being told a new story.  Being told to wait on something that you need.  Love it or Leave it is management's response to complaints on a cruise boat. If you don’t like it—leave.  Leave us alone, as they might put it to themselves.

But being maybe more idealistic, or naive, we instead wrote letters to the president about our significant pay cuts.  We made phone calls to the recruiting staff with large question marks.  We did everything we could do through the right channels to bring at least this change to the tipping policy: that they would stop telling passengers not to tip us (they instructed passengers not to tip us on every cruise) and there was no significant response to our suggestion or our complaints. 

The director of hotel operations finally came on-board, nine weeks into the season, and after giving us a pretty insulting lecture about how the new tipping policy was more financially beneficial to us than the previous arrangements (he even passed out a carefully made out pie chart and a grid), and then off-handedly talking about how the cruiseline had asked a different lawyer when they wanted a different answer to a question "we have the best justice system money can buy" he laughed at his own joke (ha, ha), he said they might (stress might) consider the small changes we asked for, but couldn't guarantee anything, and we would likely have to work though the summer season, through September before any changes were made to the existing policy.

At the end of the week he arrived on board, we, the six crew who did all of the cleaning and serving tables sat down on turn-around day and said we wanted a guarantee of a change in the tipping policy, at least so that passengers would stop being told not to tip us (although I realize now that they couldn't really do this, without themselves looking quite stupid, since they were pocketing the tip money from passengers themselves) and he instead ordered us off the boat and told us, “I’ve given you people enough of my time!”  He also told us to get out of his sight "before I do something I regret."  He even held up his fist so we wouldn’t mistake what he was talking about.

I know this part of my story probably sounds like something made up in a daytime television drama.  But unfortunately, as you appear to be pretty well aware, it's far from it, and far from even being strange in the world of cruise boats.

And  although our crew held the best passenger response cards of any other ship in their fleet, we were tossed off on June 30th in Ketchikan for standing up for ourselves.  We were let off the boat (although he promptly told everyone after we left that we had "quit" that we had “just walked off the boat”—a big fear, by the way, of management—crew unexpectedly quitting—later, to really play with our heads he was able to block all unemployment benefits for any of the fired crew, because he claimed we had “quit" our jobs and chosen not to work.  What he refused to acknowledge was that we had collectively joined together to bargain and he had turned us down and terminated us—and then, to no one’s surprise by this time, lied about it) and it was a strange day that day, getting off the boat and walking up the gangway toward Alaska. 

 It felt like freedom, although a lot of us were half in tears, half angry.  We met up with many of the passengers we had been working with only a few hours before and many of them bought us rounds of drinks and said that they would call the cruise line to complain.  Although, when I later met with a representative from the company, a woman who I knew from outside of the company, she said that none of the passengers had called to complain yet.  I had been lied to, with no apologies, so many time by that point, I'm not sure what I believe.

To be used so completely and tossed out on our ears at the end -- this isn't what passengers think when they see someone smiling and pouring them their coffee in the morning.  They don't know the pain behind all of the smiles of crew members, because it's part of your job, to be honest, to conceal that pain.  To try not to spoil anyone's fun. 

But a lot of the emotional life that you push down during your months on the boat comes out in the weeks and months after you get off, and you have to pay this toll for as long as it takes, to begin to feel what it's like to be human again.

I am telling my story in order to, I hope, create even more compassion and understanding for cruise ship crew members, most especially those with even fewer rights and provisions than we had, and to show how hard it is within the rigid confines of this profit-driven industry, to promote changes that would be beneficial both at the consumer level, and for laborers.  I feel sick, for instance, when I read about the people from the Philippines stuck in the galley for fourteen hours a day peeling potatoes and earning $450 per month.  It makes me so angry and upset.  I want to help them.  I hate realizing how many people are exploited for a few extra dollars.  I hate it.