Masters and Commanders

A cruise is a great way to take a break as long as you're not belowdecks

Yet the industry still makes a killing. Royal Caribbean earned nearly $3.5 billion last year, with a profit margin of more than 10 percent. Its stock has more than doubled in value since March. Other cruise lines have fared similarly well.

Scott Brady, who leads an effort by the International Transport Federation to unionize cruise lines, suggests why: "I think the profit margin is due to the lack of pay to the crew. The pay sucks. I mean, it's bullshit."

Pay for waiters and cabin stewards aboard the Rhapsody starts at $900 a month. Some earn more than three times that amount if they're lucky enough to snag large tips. Yet such jobs on the Rhapsody and most other cruise ships are filled almost entirely by foreigners. Most workers sign contracts for at least eight months, without a single day off. "Americans would never do this work," Brady says, referring to the average cruise position. "Most Americans would rather beg on the street or starve than work for wages like that, for that type of work."

Bath towel art is but one of the extra touches provided 
by cabin stewards.
Bath towel art is but one of the extra touches provided by cabin stewards.
Smiling is part of the job for workers on the 
Rhapsody.
Smiling is part of the job for workers on the Rhapsody.

Many cruise line employees interviewed for this story said they could be dismissed if caught speaking to a reporter. The names and genders of some workers have been changed to protect their identities.

Brady compares the decision to take a cheap cruise to the purchase of shoes from a sweatshop -- except in this case, the sweatshop is right below deck. "We look at it as a 'sweatship,' " he says. "You're working down there in a 125-degree engine room for 16 hours a day, you know. That's pretty slavelike conditions, and you're making $30 for the day. You know what I mean, it's pretty crummy."

Yet the wide gulf in income and rights enjoyed by passengers and crew is usually well masked. The predominately black cabin stewards aboard the Rhapsody sustain such consistently enthusiastic banter with their mostly white guests that some passengers are nearly convinced by the second day of the trip that they've found bosom buddies.

"He seems incredibly genuine," says Ben Reed, a high school English teacher from Denver, struggling to define his relationship with his steward, Arsenio. "It's like we've been long lost friends and I've met him twice and I haven't said three words to him. But he says, 'Hellooo, Benjamin!' when I walk down the hall."

Royal Caribbean rules ensure that such "friendships" won't develop into anything deeper and more revealing.

The "Master's Rules and Regulations" for Rhapsody workers, for example, sets clear limits on passenger-crew interactions. "All crew are reminded of the Company Policy regarding fraternizing with guests," says the rulebook, obtained by the Houston Press. "It is strictly forbidden to invite guests into crew areas or for crew to enter passenger cabins unless in the line of duty." A spokesperson for Royal Caribbean says such rules are common within the cruise industry, "to prevent improper fraternizing between employees and guests."

Just in case the message isn't clear enough, yellow signs posted just inside the crew decks say, "WARNING: No guests allowed in this area. Please return to passenger area immediately. Any crew members bringing guests in this area are subject to dismissal by the Master."

Those who venture beyond the warnings into the crew quarters find linoleum halls and bare stairwells plunging deep into the bowels of the ship. Crew cabins are about two-thirds the size of the already scrunched guest rooms upstairs, crew members say. The only ornament near one cluster of cabins is a spread of posters that remind crew members how to interact with passengers:

Greet and Smile
Own the Problem
Look the Part
Deliver the Wow

The last poster shows a man hosting a bingo competition, his face contorted into an unnatural mix of surprise and glee.

Back upstairs on passenger deck three, the carpeted hallways are decorated with posters of a different sort: music legends Bob Dylan, James Brown and Bruce Springsteen. The band honored closest to the door marked "CREW ONLY" is the Pretenders.

Cabin steward Tim Brown folds towels nearby and, asked about his job, offers an enthusiastic endorsement. "I like it, man," he says. "I get to travel, see lots of places."

Conversations with Brown over the course of the week eventually tell a more complicated story. The son of a tomato and banana farmer from St. Vincent, a Caribbean island of beaches and waterfalls, Brown is still homesick. He worked in construction for a few years, and then on his father's farm, but profits went sour after 9/11. He's on the ship to earn money, and he seems to understand that he needs to keep the conversation upbeat if he wants to make tips. He squirms a bit early in the cruise when asked what places he's seen besides the same four ports where the ship calls for a few hours, week after week. He mentions New Orleans, where the ship stopped for Mardi Gras. "It's a big party, lots of people," he says. "It's a fun time." Asked for more details about what Mardi Gras was like, he pauses and makes a confession. "We were there for two days. But I was on the ship. I had to work." He laughs, trying not to make this sound too grim.

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