P&O Ferries is the Tip of the Iceberg When It Comes to Exploitation at Sea

Covid has made these already hellish working conditions even worse.

by Sally Howard

25 March 2022

Mish Mish/Flickr

It took six months for Duangjai, then a young waitress on a major US cruise line sailing the Caribbean in the early 2000s, to change her name. The drunk Americans that Thai-born Duandjai served during her 14-hour days just couldn’t seem to get their mouths around the consonants, so Duangjai rechristened herself “Lady D”. The name was simple to pronounce, yes – but it was also a nod to the royal whose charismatic people skills Duangjai emulated. 

The customers, Duangjai confided to me when I met her on a cruise in 2019, could be “difficult”. They routinely patted her bottom, drank too much and needed escorting back to their rooms. Sometimes the men liked to show off by picking fights with the mainly Thai and Indonesian restaurant staff, or by calling them racist names.

Duangjai, who is now 44, is still working for the same cruise line, sharing a windowless below-waterline room with two other waitresses, her daughter raised by her elderly mother back in Thailand. Her unflappability is the reason, she knows, that she’s made it to the top of the pile as a restaurant manager. When we first met, she wore her silver name badge with pride.

When on 17 March P&O Ferries sacked 800 workers in a pre-recorded Zoom call with the intention of replacing them with cheaper overseas agency staff, P&O Cruises was quick to distance itself from its former corporate stablemate, noting in a tweet that “P&O Cruises has been part of Carnival Corporation & plc for over 20 years and has no connection to P&O Ferries”. 

Such positioning obscures the fact that cruise companies, including the behemoth Carnival Corp (the world’s largest cruise company, which encompasses Carnival Cruise Line, Princess Cruises, Holland America Line, Seabourn, P&O Cruises, Costa and AIDA Cruises and Cunard), have their own ignominious history of poor labour practices. 

75p an hour.

In 2012, P&O Cruises, under Carnival’s auspices, began paying its crewmembers a basic salary of 75p an hour and replaced tips with automatic gratuities billed to passengers’ accounts, which the cruise line reserved the right to withhold if a crew member failed to achieve customer satisfaction ratings of 92% or higher. In 2018, major cruise line NCL, also American-owned, was ordered to pay $3.3m to a waiter on the cruise liner Norwegian Breakaway whose arm had to be amputated after he received botched onboard healthcare for flu-like symptoms. 

In the same year, Yusmaidys Ortiz Perez, a Cuban national employed as a bartender on the MSC Opera, was sentenced to three months in prison for illegally staying on Grand Cayman to avoid sexual coercion by her line manager. Indeed, a 2021 study on the cruise industry found that cruise ships’ “physical isolation from mainland society […] demanding working conditions, intense degree of task regulation, and predominant discipline and control in the work environment” generate a conducive breeding ground for the germination of “deviant behaviours”, such as presenteeism, power abuses and workplace bullying.

Conditions for European workers on major ocean-going cruises can also be dire: in 2018, a fellow crew member’s suicide led Sarah Bowes* to leave a major US cruise line where she’d worked as a youth worker for five years.  

Bowes, now 31 and working in TV, initially loved the camaraderie amongst cruise workers so much that she overlooked the long hours and seven-day work week. “After the suicide, I just realised we weren’t that looked after,” she says. “I have ongoing health problems and staff didn’t really get any sort of healthcare.” As a white, customer-facing worker, Bowes fell into the category of “staff”, the middle tier of the ship’s onboard ranking system. Bowes says that Britons like her were often hired as client-facing staff, such as youth workers and entertainers, due to their language skills and perceived suitability to these roles.

“You had officers at the top who had their own dining room and were the captains and the ship’s engineers,” she says. “Then you had staff, like me, who were mainly European and had a [clean dining room] and Westernised food.” At the bottom of the pile were the “crew”: largely people of colour from the Global South, such as Duangjai. “The crew were only allowed to eat in their mess [hall], and [were] only served Asian and Caribbean food, like meat on the bone, and frankly it was a bit dirty down there,” she says. “At the time I thought it was because their work was dirtier, like cleaning rooms, you know, so there was no point in their dining room being clean, but now I’m not so sure.”

Putting on a show. 

On that same Caribbean cruise ship in 2019, I met Pirtri, a 25-year old Filipino woman and one of Duangjai’s colleagues in the crew. I sat with her as she folded a series of napkins into animals to entertain my infant son. Expertly fashioning a frog that hops in command, Pirtri told me that she missed her own three-year-old whom, like Duangjai, she has left thousands of miles away with relatives. Once her English improves, she told me, she would like to work in the nursery rather than clearing restaurant tables to feel a little closer to her boy.

Pirtri joined the cruise line after responding to an agency advert in a Manila newspaper that expressly appealed to Filipino women’s reputation for having a tolerant service ethic. “It said that companies like happy-faced women and I thought: that is me!” she said, adding that the cruise lines’ wages, three times more than the average wage back home, also mean that her son can be schooled well.

The psychological demands on cruise ship workers like Pirtri, who are far away from their own families but nevertheless charged with providing a friendly home-away-from-home for cruise ship guests, are well-documented. US feminist theorist Arlie Hochschild coined the term “global care chain” to account for the women from “traditional” nations who leave their children behind to supply love and care to Westerners. In her paper ‘Bananas, Beaches & Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics’, Cynthia Enloe uses the term the “chambermaid class” to refer to the women, often from the Global South, who cater to monied Western tourists as cleaners, entertainers and sex workers on the basis of their Orientalised feminine skills.

“Emotional labour in the cruise industry is higher compared to tourism and hospitality sectors on […] land,” Dr Aleksandar Radić, a researcher of social conditions in tourism, tells me. “Crew members are detached from their loved ones and significant others and there are demands on them to put on a good front for clients.” 

A number of reports point to a rise in suicides amongst cruise ship crew members in recent years. This is hardly surprising given that workers are made to endure physically gruelling working conditions, along with the uncertainty of whether their contract will be renewed. 

These issues around cruise workers’ mental wellbeing became more acute during the pandemic, which saw many workers stranded at sea after national lockdowns were announced and the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention issued a no-sail order on 12 April 2020. 

One such employee from the Global South was interviewed about his experiences by Radić and his colleagues for a 2021 paper on the psychological effects of the pandemic on cruise workers and agreed for his story to be used in this piece. Referred to in the paper as ‘Cruise Employee no. 7’, he describes the experience as one of “hopelessness, confusion, sadness and longing”.

“Some of us … finished our contracts two months ago and since then we [have] not [been] paid. There are people onboard who [have been here] for more than seven months. It’s very hard for all of us – no psychologists or any of that nonsense talk will help us. Just look at the people who have committed suicide in the last ten days,” he says, referring to the at least half a dozen crew members who killed themselves while stranded at sea. “People are on the edge and most of the people are broken beyond repair.”

Against this tragic backdrop, the pandemic has seen a rise in employer malpractice lawsuits against cruise lines, including a class-action lawsuit filed against Bahamas Paradise Cruiseline, charging that crew workers were denied severance pay and pressured into signing misleading agreements whilst being “effectively held hostage” onboard the vessel. 

In January 2021 a Florida court found in the workers’ favour, reaching a $612,000 settlement. Meanwhile, in a class-action lawsuit filed in 2020 against Celebrity Cruises, a thousand workers at the Miami-based firm alleged the company failed to protect crew members working aboard its ships amid the first months of the pandemic, refusing to take basic precautions to protect staff and not allowing them to wear face masks. 

Lifting the veil. 

Covid has exposed the harsh realities of this outwardly glamorous industry in which abuse and exploitation are rife. The fact that some workers have been emboldened to take legal action in holding these cruise lines to account offers hope that the industry might be forced to improve its treatment of its workers – just as actions brought by workers in the broader global tourist industry, including the strike action launched by chambermaids in Ibiza hotels in 2019, have called attention to conditions in tourist hotels. 

After all, there are some charms to working on a cruise ship. A 2011 study found that cruise ship employees who resigned in favour of doing land-based work had romantic memories of their time onboard, which were often incongruent with their lived experience at the time. For all of its abuses, many workers have fond memories of the adventure the ocean-going life affords. If cruise workers’ conditions are brought into line with labour standards on land, there is a chance that some of this romanticism, as well as opportunities in a travel sector that represents 10.4 % of global GDP, might be salvaged. 

On my last night on the Caribbean cruise, I dined in the doric-columned dining room next to 79-year-old midwesterner Sandy. Over a plate of braised beef brisket and a glass of Shiraz, Sandy became emotional. “I’ve served people my whole life, so I can’t get used to being waited on by all you smiling gals,” she told her waitress, a young woman from Indonesia who is expertly pouring gravy with a crisp white napkin across her forearm, sommelier-style.

The fact that Sandy can live out her life’s dream is partly down to the affordability of the cruise we’re on: the itinerary starts at $600, with food included, making it one of the cheapest week-long voyages leaving US ports. But it’s a dream that’s built on the backs of workers like Duangjai and Pirtri.

During the pandemic, after 20 years of service, Duangjai was let go by the cruise company on one-third pay; she was relieved to make it home, unlike others on her ship. Next month, however, she is returning to another ship in her old cruise lines’ fleet. There’s no chance of staying in Thailand, though: stripped of the firangi (or tourists) who represent 12% of its GDP, the country’s economy is tanking. And there are university fees to consider now that her daughter is training to be a doctor. Duangjai prefers to work 16-hour days when she’s at sea, she tells me. That way, she has little time left in her day to sit in her windowless cabin pining for home. “This is my life,” she says. “I am used to it.”

*Details have been changed to protect anonymity. 

Additional research by Florence Long.

Sally Howard is a travel and social affairs journalist and author of The Home Stretch (Why It’s Time To Come Clean About Who Does the Dishes).

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