Channel Four’s Dispatches programme, ‘Cruises Undercover: The Truth Below Deck’, which aired last night, didn’t do the cruise industry any favours.
An undercover reporter, Paul Mills, got himself a job on Celebrity Eclipse as an assistant waiter, filming secretly as he went about his work and condemning the cruise line for the low pay, the long hours and some unsavory practices going on below decks. “Welcome to hell,” said the reporter’s new roommate, an Eastern European waiter.
Celebrity Cruises is formulating its own response to the programme and we’ll be interested to see how they defend some of the allegations. But meanwhile, here are our thoughts on the main points raised, the working hours and the pay.
Yes, crew work incredibly long hours, on all cruise ships, across the industry. It’s a young person’s job. They also tend to party hard, but we weren’t shown any of that. And those from poor or developing countries are there for a single reason: A job on a cruise ship provides them with the means to send money home to their families, far more money than they would be likely to earn back home. The documentary did not dwell on this for long.
Yes, the wages are low. But it was clearly stated in the documentary that Celebrity would make up any shortfall in a waiter’s job if the minimum level of tips were not achieved. And why keep invoking the minimum wage in the U.K. as a standard to which cruise lines should adhere? Celebrity Eclipse is flagged in Malta and the company is registered in Liberia. In some regions of the Philippines, from where many cruise ship crew come, the minimum wage is just over £3 a day in the backbreaking world of agriculture, with no accommodation and no food (both of which are provided on a cruise ship). So a cruise job is beginning to look quite attractive to a Filipino worker who can send home over £600 a month.
The presenter of the programme, Tazeem Ahmad, who travelled on the cruise in question as a passenger, seemed ridiculously naïve. Why bang on about the level of luxury above decks compared to the hive of industry below as though it’s an outrage? Is a five-star hotel or a busy restaurant kitchen any more cosy behind the scenes? It was almost as though she expected the cruise to be like a holiday for the workers.
Why just pick on one cruise ship? And the one disgruntled former employee of Royal Caribbean who was interviewed? Why not look at some of the positives, like the medical cover, sick pay and pension provision? Or some different cruise lines? I’ve been on smaller ships where we’ve partied with the crew in bars ashore, where the crew have been invited to bring relatives onboard in port, where a basketball court has been set up on the quayside for a crew vs officers match, where the bar has closed early for a crew party on deck … it’s not all hell.
And then there were the experts wheeled out. A university professor whose works include books like ‘Paradise Lost at Sea: Rethinking Cruise Vacations’ and a Miami-based lawyer who specialises in cases against cruise lines. Say no more.
And while Paul-the-undercover-waiter goes on about cruising being a ‘poignant metaphor for wider global divisions’ and calling for ships to be ‘bound to laws of the country out of which they operate’, let’s not forget that if this were to happen, ships would need to carry many more crew, fares would rocket, the industry would probably collapse and hundreds of thousands of workers from developing countries would be out of a job.
Yes, elements of crew conditions do present a moral dilemma, as do (to me, anyway), conditions in the construction industry in the Middle East, or sweatshops in India, or supermarkets that don’t stock enough Fair Trade produce. But next time, let’s hear both sides of the story, please.
Did you watch Dispatches? Let us know what you thought.
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