Masters and Commanders

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

Andrews, wearing a gray three-button suit, steps up to a podium, flanked by palms and fountains. "As you know, ladies and gentlemen, there is a lot of trouble in the world, but here aboard the Rhapsody, there is hope," he says in his Australian accent, pausing for effect. "As you know, we have over 50 different nationalities working together here side by side every day." The crowd warmly applauds and he launches everyone into "God Bless America." The words appear in the flyers for the passengers, but the crew knows them by heart. "From the mountains, to the prairies, / To the oceans white with foam. / God bless America, my home, sweet, home."

If home for workers aboard the ship in any way resembles America, then it most closely approximates the segregated life of whites and blacks in the Deep South during the 1950s. Status on the ship is divided into three distinct levels, each of which enjoys vastly different privileges. At the bottom are crew, people such as cabin stewards, waiters and cooks. They are most often Filipino, African and Eastern European. The class above them is known as staff, people such as entertainers, casino dealers and spa workers, and they include more Americans and Western Europeans. Staff members have access to their own restaurant. Crew may order takeout from the staff eatery but can't sit there and eat unless "invited and accompanied by a staff member and appropriately attired," says the rulebook. Crew members also have access to the Staff & Officers Bar, but only after 11 p.m. or if invited by someone with staff privileges.

Some staff areas are off limits to crew entirely. The staff can work out in the gym, swim in the pools and eat dinner in the Windjammer Café, a restaurant overlooking the ocean, but crew must stay out of these areas when not working.

Herds of passengers set out for the bars and 
boutiques of Key WestÂ…
Herds of passengers set out for the bars and boutiques of Key WestÂ…
Â…while workers who can afford cell phones take a 
short break to dial home.
Â…while workers who can afford cell phones take a short break to dial home.

Above both staff and crew are the officers, who are mostly Norwegian. "Only Senior Officers are allowed to use the Windjammer for breakfast, lunch or afternoon snack without prior approval," the rulebook says. The officers also take four-course meals in the formal dining room, often flanked by rapt passengers. They lounge in their white-and-gold uniforms at the nicer passenger bar. "Dating" is prohibited, although on Thanksgiving one officer in the bar snuggled against a young woman in a cocktail dress.

Royal Caribbean spokesperson Michael Sheehan defends the differing privileges in a written statement. "As is the case in many industries, senior employees have greater interaction with customers on a daily basis, and correspondingly a greater responsibility in representing the company," he says. "With regard to our senior employees, that interaction is encouraged."

Friday's Friendship Celebration ends in a final burst of flag-waving and the guests file into the dining room for a meal of surf and turf with plenty of extra lobsters on hand for seconds. After nearly a week of serving up smiles and dinner rolls, the waiters are still beaming. Waitress Hillary Thomas stacks used dessert plates with a wide grin, even as she confesses to disliking her job. Thomas is from South Africa and she's worked on the ship for nearly two years. "To be honest, I think this will be my last contract," she says. "It's just too emotionally draining."

Waiters say one reason they're always smiling is the competition. Those who receive the best guest evaluations at the end of the cruise earn larger stations the next week. One "poor" rating can send a waiter to the bottom of the heap, and lose him $300 to $400 in tips. So beyond the view of passengers, the system spawns a cutthroat environment. "You want to be cheerful," Thomas says, "but you go back into the kitchen and everybody is fighting to pick up their food."

Just after Thomas whisks the last plates off her table, Antonio Verdi, a galley steward who cleans and does preparation work in the kitchen, reports to duty. Verdi works from 10 p.m. to 9 a.m. every day, and his job makes the life of a waiter look pleasant.

One of Verdi's jobs is to mop the kitchen floor. Other galley stewards received rubber boots for the job, but Verdi has only sneakers. The work soaks his shoes every day and gives him a foot fungus. He went to the doctor, who gave him a vaginal cream to control the infection, but he keeps putting on the same wet shoes and the infection won't go away.

Verdi has worked on the ship for three months and sends almost all of his money home. With a salary of $500 to $600 a month, he only recently earned enough to cover the $1,500 airfare he paid to travel to the ship and begin work. Most new workers bear similar travel debts and can ill afford to resign early. "If I was single, I would quit," he says. "But I have five kids."

Verdi finishes cleaning, then fries doughnuts. At about 1:30 a.m. he is legally owed a 30-minute lunch break. But every day for the past three months, he has kept working because of intimidation. He tried to go on break a few weeks ago and his Filipino supervisor chastised him. "When I take my break, he got mad, he got annoyed, and he said I should take my break when I go to the bathroom." Verdi was given 15 minutes, not enough time to eat.

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