Why do so few Americans work on cruise ships? Other than entertainers, are there any at all? I worked at sea 4 years on 5 cruise lines, and never encountered more than a handful of Americans on any one ship, despite crew lists in the hundreds and usually over a thousand. So why won’t cruise ships hire Americans?
A hint: I recall an Australian couple who quit after only two days as waiters on a Carnival ship. They were forced to work until the end of the cruise or they would have to pay for their food and cabins. Abandoned in Miami, they had less than 24 hours to leave the U.S. before Homeland Security arrested them. And, really, how many disgruntled Indonesians living in Bali do you hear from? It’s all too easy to hide why cruise lines won’t hire Americans. As the sole American to survive a full contract in a Carnival dining room without quitting or transferring (the first in 30 years, I might add!) I discovered the hard way why Americans are barred at all costs.
#1 Slave Wages Overview: One website offering services to help get hired on ships had the ludicrous statement that wages were comparable to the same job on land. That is a blatant lie. If the wages are the same, why aren’t there any Americans working on American ships owned by American companies?
Wages: most crew members make from $1500-$2000 a month. This applies to the lowest level crewmembers who don’t even have guest contact and barely speak English, such as the Able Seamen, to the hairdressers at the Spa, up to the entertainment staff who are constantly in front of the guests endlessly hosting Bingo. Rumors of room stewards and waiters making larger income are true but exaggerated. I was disciplined by Carnival for mentioning the ship pays waiters almost nothing: the ‘voluntary’ tips of guests are the only money they see.
$ per Hour: herein lies the deception. In a regular 40 hour work week, the wage may indeed be comparable. However, cruise lines demands at least 80 hours a week without a single day off for months in a row. Even minimum wage at 80 hours a week is more than $1500 a month… and you don’t share a closet-sized room with a strange foreigner, either.
Limited expenses: the ship will house you, clothe you, feed you, and ensure your safety (but not health). You can save much of your earnings by avoiding bills. Crew food is good and plentiful, though geared towards foreign palates (especially Asian: some ships cook up 100 lb. of rice daily). Most first world staff seek more familiar and healthier foods in port. Ports, of course, are vacation destinations and overpriced. A burger and a beer frequently cost $25, and a salad easily costs $12. Drinking, the magic elixir for crews since sailing began, is especially expensive in these places.
#2 Crew Cabins Overview: cabins are one of the greatest shocks of all, particularly for Americans from the suburbs. While cabin sizes vary based on ship hierarchy, they are universally tiny, cramped, and utterly unnatural. Most are below the waterline and none have windows or natural air. You will share a closet-sized cabin with a foreigner who may or may not share your values in hygiene or sanitation. Newer ships have toilets and showers shared between two cabins, but older ships have communal facilities tucked into corners.
Size: my first cabin on the older Carnival Fantasy was modestly large, due to lack of toilet/shower/or sink facilities. Communal facilities, shared by dozens of nationalities, were filthy and I never used them. Most modern cabins have less than six feet of floor space. Invariably suitcases are crammed beneath the desk and the chair is shoved out of the way if possible. The design is such that only one man can dress at a time, the other being forced into his cabin or into the toilet.
Privacy: there is no privacy on ships at all, sometimes not even on the toilet! Officers can and will search cabins regularly without warning. Crew structure is surprisingly military in manner. Because the company is 100% responsible for your life, they take great interest in what occurs in their cabins below the waterline. Even hidden behind your bunk’s curtain, privacy is difficult to maintain when your roommate is watching a movie, frequently in a foreign language, or more often having sex with a stranger. To be fair, none of this matters because most crew are never in their cabins. Sleep is fleeting on ships and free time nonexistent.
#3 Unending Labor Overview: ship life is a 24/7 operation and no one gets time off, not even the captain. In the restaurants I worked a minimum of 80 hours a week, with a stretch of 100 hours a week for nearly three months before I finally moved on. Don’t be fooled by crew or even the captain lingering in the crew bar constantly: everyone is always ‘on’ and ready for an iceberg. But after yet another 15 hour day and only six hours to relax, bathe, sleep, and return to work, alcohol is a much needed ‘speed relaxer’.
Schedule: crew of all levels work seven days a week with no days off for up to ten months. Further, schedules force workers into labor all day and night, a few hours here and there. As a waiter, I worked daily for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and midnight buffet, receiving one rotating shift off daily. On Carnival Legend I only received one lunch off every eight days!
Few ports off: it is true that some concessionaires never work when in port, because shops and casinos are bound by international laws. Entertainers work at night only and have the most free time. Most crew jobs, however, are working in port as well: there are guests to feed, rooms to clean, safety to ensure, tenders to man, spas to soothe, etc.
#4 Transience Overview: this unique life caters to those with an open mind, a lust for travel, and able to let comfort slide in favor of experience. The entire world is potentially at your fingertips, but many crew never even leave the ship.
Contracts: mostly six to ten months at sea a year, sometimes more. Friends and family are only contacted via phone in port or via expensive emails. Limited shore time is usually at internet cafés. Many Americans have regular bills, such as rent, auto loans, credit cards, insurances, or storage fees and find the unknown and variable schedule difficult to manage.
Vacations: Signing off a ship is like the last day of school times 10, but even that is stressful. Sometimes you sign off on the wrong side of the earth and have to make your own way back home. No one talks about how a $1,500 a month salary can be devoured by flying across planet earth twice (more expensive one-way trip tickets, remember). And where to stay for two or three months? Who wants a house guest for three months?
Being an Outsider: after a few contracts, years have passed and you have changed. The return to land life is very difficult and many fail and return to ships, overwhelmed by starting fresh, paying for everything from food and clothing to rent and electricity to insurance. Ships take care of everything, asking only for slave labor in return. You either get used to the labor or perish, and before you know it you are seduced by the sea.
#5 In the Navy Overview: naval life has always been harsh. No longer are lashes the norm, but the reasons for them are alive and well. Officers wear stripes for a reason: they are responsible for the survival of the guests. They are trained naval experts and demand a well-run ship or people die.
Drills: in decades past the first and sometimes only people to escape from sinking liners were crew. Now international law requires all guests to perform a boat drill before departure. Cruise lines spend millions on safety and hire the best officers. But how does this translate to, say, a waiter on a floating hotel?
Crew drill constantly, defying limited sleep and precious port time. Strict compliance is demanded or termination results. As crew you are property, not a person. The corporation controls everything about you, from when/how you sleep to where you use the toilet. You aren’t in the military, but boy are you close!
International waters mean labor laws are for PR only. On Carnival, I was virtually denied food for no reason other than being American, and while the cruise line did not know about it, they didn’t really care because that’s ship life. Americans complain to the press and like to sue, so they are avoided. It’s that simple.