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Crewing on a cruise ship: hard work, pleasant surroundings

Written By | Jan 2, 2016

WASHINGTON, January 2, 2016 – Being on a crew on a huge modern cruise ship isn’t a “Love Boat” experience. Modern ships are much nicer than the one we saw on television nearly 40 years ago, but the work is hard, handling everything with a smile and efficiency, all day, every day.

Clearly in command of the position, Pierre Camillieri, from Malta, ran the “passenger side” of 2015’s flagship, Carnival Breeze, coordinating 1411 employees of 61 nationalities and nine religions, with all that entails. “I think we [Carnival Cruise Lines] should run the United Nations,” he said. “Living and working onboard is not easy.”

(Carnival Cruise Lines)

(Carnival Cruise Lines)

Neither is recruiting and retaining crews that are together, thousands of miles from home, 24/7, for months at a time, who work closely together to give the 3000+ customers (none of whom has any previous or future relationship with them) a great time. (By the end of our interview, I wanted him in charge of the UN. Or the world.)

Employees are tested for English mastery – a common language is essential, and nearly all passengers on Breeze routes speak English. 98% of the passengers were from North America; in the summer, it drops to 92%. On our own cruise, in mid-January and with school in session, the ship is quiet. Only 59 passengers were 12 years old or younger (and three of them were in our party).

Shipboard work is demanding, and crew earn two months’ shore leave after six months aboard (for officers, it’s two after four). “After a long time on ship, we want them to have time to relax and have nothing to do with the job,” Camillieri said. Carnival flies them home and back, anywhere in the world. Their most-common activity at home is building or adding to a house. “They can schedule their vacations,” he says, “within some guidelines; and we have some exceptions, too, for finishing a house or a college degree…”

(Tim Kern)

(Tim Kern)

“We give our crew members the chance to make their dreams come true,” says Camillieri. “We have 15 ports in eight countries. They get lots of exposure, not just to the ports of call, but on vacations — many spend their time in the US or Australia. And they see a variety of passengers, as well.”

Crew members are officially scheduled to work 7-10 hours a day, but every crewman I interviewed, in many different areas of the ship, rarely worked fewer than 10; often 12 hours or more. The offsets include five meals a day (plus a tea and a buffet); couples can work on the same ship, and may get one of a limited number of couples’ cabins. Crew are bunked two to a room, by sex, nationality, and department; roommate requests are honored.

It’s not surprising that the average age of Camilieri’s crew is 25 (officers average 36), with members ranging from 19 to 65; the oldest are in the engine room, where years of experience are worth big bucks, as the V-6 diesels must run day and night, flawlessly.

The ship has a Crew Activity Committee; the crews plan the meals within wide guidelines (and one of the hot tips is to find out which nationality predominates on a given ship, and make sure you order that nationality’s specialty at dinner time!).

Though the pay is terrible by U.S. standards (and American workers don’t adjust well to the pace), it’s is good on a worldwide basis; openings are readily filled, with preference to those with on-board references. And tips – “merit pay” – can exceed salaries.

(Tim Kern)

(Tim Kern)

A Balinese, on his first tour with Carnival, answered my question about the apparent segregation of American workers. “Americans work in other parts of the ship, because of the way they are paid. They are paid differently. They get overtime. We all have ten-hour shifts, but if an American works overtime, he gets paid overtime. Not the rest of us. We work overtime all the time, and don’t ever get paid overtime. That’s why you never see Americans on [food service] jobs. Indonesians, Indians, South Americans, Philippinos, eastern Europeans, other Europeans sometimes; Russians – but Americans are always in the other jobs.”

We talked with many crew members, and heard firsthand how much they loved the work. And how hard it is. A 31-year-old man makes $47 base a month; he lives on tips. “I signed up for 10 hours a day, but it’s always more. If I were still on Bali, I would be working in a hotel or food service.” Without tourism, “There is nothing to do for a job” there.

“I like working here. It’s good money. I would like to go to school, but I am home only two months at a time, so I cannot take a course. I could take courses on line, but on the ship there is no time.”

The “no time” mantra was repeated among nearly all the crew I interviewed. My dinner waiter told me about a typical day at sea: he finished serving about 11p.m., and then had his own dinner. In his bunk at 1a.m., and up at 6. I saw him at breakfast about 7:30. After breakfast, he grabbed another two hours of sleep; then lunch; then another nap. “I don’t mind; it’s plenty of sleep. But it took a while to get into the routine. And when we are ashore, or especially when the ship is in port, everything is different.”

Camillieri confirmed that, and added that returning workers “take about ten days to get back into the shipboard routine.”

Crew cabins are three by four meters, for 2 people, with a private bath – the same size as many passenger cabins; there is one desk/table. Wi-fi is available to crew at cost. “Nothing is free except our food and our room. A uniform is $200-300, depending on which one.” They buy their own uniforms, which always appeared spotless.

The hardest part of the food-service job, we were told by management and staff alike, was lifting, balancing, and carrying the maximum-allowed 12 plates. “We train them on the lift,” he said. “We need our crew!”

Rocque, or “Rocky,” from Bombay (he didn’t call it “Mumbai”) has been a Carnival bartender for 29 years. “I like people,” he says. “And I meet the most interesting people, from all over the world. After this much time on ships, I am completely used to the schedule. It is hard, for new people [employees] sometimes, but not for me.”

Another crewman said, “If a worker wants to go ashore on his own free time, it comes from allotted sleep time. Really, all other hours are for work – officially or unofficially, it’s all the same: you’re sleeping or you’re working. Contracts are for 10 hours/day; you work much more.”

Crew are rarely off-station. There is clinic and doctor on board, but, “If you’re sick, you go to the ship’s medic who says you’re OK and sends you back to work.”

 (Tim Kern)

(Tim Kern)

But! It was apparent to me that the longer they work for Carnival or in the industry, the happier they are with their jobs. Regardless, everyone – everyone, old and new, even those quoted above – puts on a happy and helpful face.

A young Indonesian crewman said he has worked for Carnival for five years; he was two months into this tour. “If I were back on Java, I would work in a hotel and make $200-300 a month; I would have to buy my own food. Here, the money is good. I have a family, and I see my children and my wife for two months, after six months.” His advice? “To make your job easier, just enjoy what you do.”

A final advantage came through when I met a 27-year-old Ukrainian with a university degree in tourism and hotel management who joined Carnival three years earlier, planning on investing in an apartment back home. But “the Russian situation is too unsteady.” Her boyfriend, also on the crew, agreed: “Putin used to be like a mentor, but now we do not trust him. I do not know what happened to him.” The ship is a place of routine and refuge in an uncertain international sea.

And, yes, though some complained (and only when asked), I encountered none without a smile, or who wanted to be working for someone else, back home.

Tim Kern

Tim Kern taught economics for fifteen years, and discovered that understanding life is easy; it’s recognizing reality that takes practice. He holds a music degree, and later earned an MBA in finance from Northwestern University. He has lived across the US, and now makes his home in Anderson, Indiana.