Masters and Commanders

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

Filipinos who work his same job and who are friends with the supervisor take breaks without incident. "The other Filipino, the other worker, arrived with a plate of rice and ate calmly," Verdi says. "He saw me, and he didn't say anything. It's not just."

Verdi burned his arm the same week on a hot piece of equipment in the kitchen. The welt is still visible, about the diameter of an apple. His supervisor told him that he didn't need to go see the doctor, that he should just keep working.

Some of Verdi's friends report to supervisors who are even worse. One friend from the same country asked a supervisor for a break and he grabbed his genitals, Verdi says, apparently another way of saying "no way." When employees ask where to find equipment or ingredients, Verdi says, supervisors often unstuff the questioners' pockets. "Look for it," they yell. "Look for it!"

Odds are, this man is not an American citizen.
Odds are, this man is not an American citizen.
Royal Caribbean encourages officers to mingle with 
passengers in the bar. But off-duty crew members are 
banned.
Royal Caribbean encourages officers to mingle with passengers in the bar. But off-duty crew members are banned.

"Royal Caribbean does not tolerate discrimination of any sort," Sheehan says. "When an allegation of discriminatory behavior is brought to the attention of company management…it is investigated and, where appropriate, corrective action is taken."

Verdi says he hasn't reported his supervisor, for fear of reprisals. But friends tell him it's his right to take a break. So after he finishes frying the doughnuts tonight, he asks his boss again. The supervisor slams a table with his hand but yells, "Go! Go!"

Verdi retreats to the crew mess hall for his first lunch break ever. He sits down trembling, too shaken up to eat. Despite the long hours, segregation and abuses by supervisors, working conditions aboard Royal Caribbean ships are among the best in the industry. The company has employed union agreements ever since it was founded in 1969. The current contract with the Norwegian Seafarers' Union provides disgruntled workers with access to grievance procedures, sets a pay scale for overtime, stipulates required time off and protects workers from unfair termination.

"I think you have better conditions, as a whole," says Johan Oyen, director of cruise operations for the union. The contract "deals with insurance, it deals with sick wages, it deals with a whole host of issues, in reality, that you would not have onboard a ship that is not unionized."

The agreement also requires the company to give workers at least 11 hours off for each 24-hour period, with one break of at least six hours. Yaw Ali, an Indonesian galley steward on the Carnival Celebration, isn't so lucky. He sat on a Galveston park bench wearing wraparound sunglasses on a recent Thursday and simply stared into space. Over the past 31 hours, he was off duty for nine. Those nine hours were divided into three separate chunks: a break for five hours, three hours and one hour. He counted the hours he slept last night on one hand. "Only four hours."

Some of Ali's troubles mirror those faced by his counterparts on the Rhapsody. His supervisor assigns the easiest jobs to workers of the same nationality. "It's like a family business," he says. But unlike Rhapsody workers, who must be fired according to union protocol, he is more vulnerable to dismissal if he complains, say union organizers.

The ITF's Brady began pressuring Carnival Cruise Lines and the smaller Disney Cruise Lines to sign labor agreements four years ago and quickly encountered roadblocks. He collected 4,200 pledge cards signed by Carnival and Disney workers, but the ships fly foreign flags and are immune to the type of laws that support labor agreements under the U.S. National Labor Relations Board. When the pledge cards were presented to Carnival and Disney, Brady says, "they just laughed us off the map."

Brady responded by attempting to organize strikes in Cozumel and the Bahamas. If just a fraction of the engine crew refuses to return to a ship, it can't sail legally under Coast Guard regulations once it returns to U.S. waters. Brady thinks a strike would cause a public relations disaster. But if a crew member angers his bosses, he says, he not only faces termination, but he may be added to a global blacklist, making it impossible for him to find work on any ship again. Not surprisingly, the strikes never happened.

Carnival spokesperson Vance Gulliksen says Carnival workers do not require a collective bargaining agreement because the company adheres to the Merchant Shipping (Minimum Standards) Convention, a treaty ratified by 44 countries, including the United States. The convention sets minimum wage and labor standards for seafarers.

"Carnival provides a positive and comfortable working environment while offering shipboard employees an opportunity to earn tremendously higher wages than they can in their homeland or in the cargo industry," he says in a written statement. "Employees are also provided medical care, room, board, tax-free wages and a shipboard retirement plan."

Brady characterizes the Merchant Shipping Convention as a weak and outdated treaty. Many cargo ships and all ships with ITF-approved union contracts meet or exceed the higher standards promoted by the United Nations' International Maritime Organization, he says.

And he disagrees that seafarers earning low wages in their home countries deserve low wages on cruise ships. "If I'm Canadian, let's say, or I'm from the UK, and I'm working down in the engine room, why should I be making $600 more than the Filipino guy that does the same job as I do?"

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