Two British organizations recently released a report that paints a grim picture of working conditions on cruise ships, tarnishing the fun, romantic image that the cruise ship industry has cultivated.

“Cruise ship employees … are often excited by the thought of working for such world-famous names as Disney or Carnival or Princess, in luxury conditions with the chance to see the world and earn money at the same time … But what many … too often discover is, by contrast a nightmare,” writes the reports author Celia Mather, in “Sweatships: What It’s Really Like to Work On Board Cruise Ships,” published by the UK-based War On Want (WOW) and the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF).

The cruise ship industry’s 150,000 employees are confined to cramped, confined spaces on six- to 10-month non-stop contracts. Workers from poor countries of Latin America, Asia and Central/Eastern Europe are largely consigned menial work in ships restaurants, bars, cabins and loading bays. Women are concentrated in non-technical services such as hotel work and catering. These workers are segregated from everyone else and are not permitted to go on the upper decks where passengers reside, except for those who must work with passengers directly.

In contrast, managers, officers, technical staff, entertainers, medical staff and engineers come from industrialized countries such as the UK, U.S. and Italy. They have more spacious living conditions, have their own private restaurants, and have access to upper decks and some facilities enjoyed by passengers. Noting that workers from poor nations are servicing passengers who largely come from the white population of the rich industrialized nations, Mather writes that, “It is very reminiscent of colonial days. But perhaps more accurately it can be seen as a microcosm of today’s global economy.”

Mather says that fierce competition among cruise lines has led to greater efforts, “to squeeze greater value out of their workforce,” by paying low wages for long hours of work. For example, Carnival Cruise Lines monthly pay ranges from $1,000 per month, for a laundry worker for a 10-12 hour day, $700 per month for a cook for a 10-12 hour day, to a bar waiter who earns $50 (the rest of their income comes from tips) per month for a 12-14 hour day. In addition, an ITF study of 400 cruise ship workers found that the average work week was seven days a week, 12-14 hours per day. Only unionized vessels pay overtime but this is not the case on non-unionized ships where there is no system to record overtime. Lines such as Carnival provide no sick pay.

To add insult to injury, Mather says that many workers from poor countries must pay crewing agents to obtain jobs, “which means that many cruise ship workers end up working the first few months just to pay back their costs.” In addition, workers receive no pay – except a small allocation when they work – between contracts and may have to attend courses, for which they must bear the cost.

The report also points out that cruise ship workers complain of “systematic abuse” at the hands of managers. Mather writes that “in interviews, over and again, those working on cruise ships report authoritarian and even aggressive behavior by managers and supervisors, and rampant favoritism.” Enforcing discipline may entail a fine, and punishment can mean instant dismissal without appeal. Some crew members offer money or sex to obtain better jobs, or to keep supervisors happy. In addition, some men use their authority to gain sexual favours.

Sexual harassment is a persistent problem and while a number of large cruise ship companies have sexual harassment policies, many crew members are unaware of these policies. A 1999 lawsuit compelled Carnival Cruises to reveal that between 1993-98 there were 100 accusations of rape and sexual assault against women as well as men. Others are hesitant to report sexual harassment because they fear dismissal, “a very real possibility,” adds Mather.

Given horrendous working conditions, many cruise lines deduct a portion of their workers wages, which are withheld until they complete their contracts to ensure that workers do not break their contracts and leave early. These same companies also hold onto the passports of their workers.

According to Mather, the International Council of Cruise Ship Lines (ICCL) – an industry association consisting of cruise ship lines and their suppliers – drafted a “shipboard Workplace Code of Conduct” at the end of 1999. This code guarantees workers better working and living conditions, but it is voluntary and devoid of monitoring or verification procedures. The ITF calls the code, “little more that a PR sop to public opinion, given the well-documented and widespread abuses.”

Mather asserts that while international law, as set down by the UN’s International Labour Organization and International Maritime Organization, compel employers to provide seafarers with decent living and working conditions as well as collective bargaining rights, enforcement depends on the will of national governments subscribing to these agreements. However, as Mather notes, most cruise lines have registered and fly under the flags of Panama, Bahamas and Liberia, “deliberately placing their ships under countries which have weak laws and even weaker enforcement, and are notorious for not enforcing international standards. This allows the companies to benefit from poor legal protection for the crew members, and little or no union movement in the country to defend them.”

Furthermore, the report states that in order to forestall unionization, “companies employ many different nationalities apparently in a deliberate attempt to prevent solidarity between workers building up. The threat of instant dismissal hangs over most seafarers on board who try to organize together with their fellow workers to take up workplace issues,” writes Mather.

To this end, cruise lines have also resorted to offering shorter contracts to workers. Even on unionized ships, the ITF has difficulty enforcing union agreements, especially when these ships are sailing in distant waters. Other cruise lines have blocked ITF inspectors from coming on board vessels.

Asked if WOW/ITF’s report of poor living and working conditions on cruise ships was true and if cruise lines were denying their workforce collective bargaining rights, ICCL spokeswoman Molly McPherson told the World, “no, it’s not true.”

“Sweatships: What It Really Like to Work on Board Cruise Ships” is part of WOW and ITF’s campaign to improve cruise ship workers living and working conditions. WOW and ITF launched the campaign because of mounting complaints from mistreated cruise ship workers.

More information about the ITF’s cruise ship campaign and how you can support it can be obtained at:

Tim Pelzer is a longshoreman and writer from Canada and can be reached at


Fred Gaboury
Fred Gaboury

Fred Gaboury was a member of the Editorial Board of the print edition of  People’s Weekly World/Nuestro Mundo and wrote frequently on economic, labor and political issues. Gaboury died in 2004. Here is a small selection of Fred’s significant writings: Eight days in May Birmingham and the struggle for civil rights; Remembering the Rev. James Orange; Memphis 1968: We remember; June 19, 1953: The murder of the Rosenbergs; World Bank and International Monetary Fund strangle economies of Third World countries