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When I was twenty-two I went to work for Royal Caribbean cruise lines. It was supposed to be a six-month contract, which is normal, but my contract was extended so that I could train a couple of other people. I spent about nine months at sea by the end, and worked on three different ships. I was technically an officer because I was the only person in my newly established position as the ship’s floral designer, though the title was never acknowledged by the other officers . I maintained fresh and silk mixed arrangements around the ship, I watered plants and set up a shop where I sold flowers to the passengers for three or four hours each day.

It was a truly interesting experience. I learned lots of things. I learned that being a woman in an international setting can really remind you that the world still views women as the lesser sex. I learned that the people who work and live on ships live a pretty unhealthy and unstable lifestyle. I got to visit some places and see some things that I had never seen before. I met some interesting people and made some good friends. I got to have a first hand look at some things that most people don’t know about cruise ships while I was there, and I feel like I am responsible for passing the information on.

On all of my ships, near the purser’s office, there was a plaque; and I’m angry with myself that I never thought to take a picture of one. The plaque stated that on the ship, wage would be determined by nationality and then went on to explain how that worked. Our ships were all registered in Liberia. All of the offices are run out of Miami, but the ships are only held to the laws of the country where they are registered. Some jobs on board are sourced to small companies. For instance, the people who worked in the spas on the ships were all from South Africa, most of the shop keeps were Australian, the photographers were from New Zeeland, and the entertainment staff was American. We all had above deck privileges and decent pay rates, the other two thirds of crewmembers on the ship did not.

I am speaking about all of the house keeping staff, the kitchen staff (excluding chefs), all of the casino workers, servers, and bartenders. Not only were they not paid a reasonable wage for their work, they made no wage at all. The only pay that they receive on ships is what they make in tips. Tips are garnished by the ship’s security officers who will give a disciplinary warning to any crewmember who is not giving them the amount that they ask for as a garnishment. After three warnings a crewmember loses their job and goes back home. To get a job on a ship to begin with, the majority of crewmembers hire a headhunter back in their own country who charges them around four thousand American dollars just to get them a position on a ship. They spend their first few years onboard just paying back that loan.

It is slave labor. It can be sugar coated in all sorts of ways, but that’s exactly what it is. There is no way that our country should allow these companies to get away with what they are doing, but it’s all about money. The cruise lines are really terrible horrible companies. I am not telling anyone never to take a cruise, but I am saying that if you do, you should tip really, really, well. I am talking about the big guys here. I know that there are some small cruise lines that sail wind vessels or ships up in Alaska that are actually registered in the states and held to American law. I haven’t researched them, but I would also tend to believe that the fleet Disney has launched most likely has much better practices.

In addition to the slave labor, the security on the ships where I worked was laughable. I would personally call these guys hired thugs, I once had one tell my friend, who he thought was my boyfriend, that he should smack me around more often. My cruise line even put us through a training where they taught us how wonderfully ecologically progressive our ships were, because we only dumped our really bad garbage when we were far out at sea.

So, I’m merely putting this out there. There is more detail that I could go into, but I think that I touched on the more relevant points. It is well worth it to spend a little time considering these things when planning a vacation. The lure of traveling on ships is easy to understand. They are amazingly fun and the opportunities they provide to see and do and explore are endless, the whole package just isn’t quite as pretty as it appears on the outside.


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