There's a strict hierarchy on cruise ships that creates a huge gap between the highest and lowest-paid workers. Many of those at the bottom make less than $20,000 per year.

cruise ship workerA crew member works aboard the Cunard cruise liner RMS Queen Mary 2 in 2017.Loic Venance/Getty Images

  • Cruise-ship workers are subject to a strict hierarchy that determines their pay, living conditions, and contracts.
  • Workers closer to the bottom of the hierarchy have described to Business Insider more difficult working and living conditions than those at the top, and many reported monthly earnings of $2,000 or less.
  • "Whenever it comes to an officer or a manager, they like to treat each other with respect. But if you're not a manager or an officer, they just see you as their slave," said a former photographer for Royal Caribbean International.
  • "Being an officer, I had it quite good, but I was shocked at the way the other employees were treated," said a former assistant food and beverage manager for Princess Cruises.
  • A representative for the Cruise Lines International Association said, "cruise lines invest heavily to attract the best people, offering an extremely competitive package of wages and benefits, as well as ensuring crew members have the training to perform jobs skillfully and advance on a rewarding career path."
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Cruise-ship workers are subject to a strict hierarchy that determines their pay, living conditions, and contracts. At the top of the hierarchy are officers: managers and those responsible for navigation. In the middle are staff members, which include workers in entertainment, retail, and guest services. At the bottom are crew members, who are generally responsible for serving guests. They include servers, bartenders, and cleaning staff.

Crew and lower-paid staff members have described to Business Insider more difficult working and living conditions than officers, and many reported monthly earnings of $2,000 or less. Of the 39 current and former cruise-ship workers who told Business Insider their monthly earnings, 18 said they at one point made $2,000 or less per month.

That's not uncommon, as Carnival Corp. and Royal Caribbean Cruises reported median annual earnings for their employees of less than $20,000 in 2018, while Norwegian Cruise Line reported median earnings for its employees just above $20,000. Those figures are significantly lower than the earnings of the median worker in the US, who made $32,838 last year, according to the Social Security Administration's estimate. And they're minuscule when compared with the compensation received by each company's chief executive. Norwegian CEO Frank Del Rio made $22.6 million last year, while Carnival CEO Arnold Donald made $13.5 million and Royal Caribbean CEO Richard Fain made $12.4 million.

The cruise-ship workers Business Insider spoke with who reported the highest monthly earnings, which fell between $5,000 and $10,000, tended to be from the US or Canada. Those who reported earnings of $2,000 or less tended to be from South America, Eastern Europe, or Southeast Asia.

A 2005 study from the Seafarers International Research Centre found that 70% of cruise-ship workers were from regions that didn't have what the International Monetary Fund calls "advanced" economies, like Latin America, Eastern Europe, and parts of Asia, while 30% of workers came from regions with advanced economies, like the US and Western Europe. Workers from advanced economies were much more likely to be officers than workers from nonadvanced economies, the study found.

cruise ship worker heirarchy graphicShayanne Gal/Business Insider

William Terry, an associate professor at Clemson University who has studied the recruitment of cruise-ship employees, came to a similar conclusion after talking to hundreds of cruise-ship workers in 2007 and 2008.

"For so many people looking to get ahead, there's a reality that they're probably going to be locked out of certain positions simply because of where they come from," he said.

The cruise industry's labor force is a product of global economic inequalities, Terry said. Workers from countries without advanced economies told him they wouldn't have taken a cruise-ship job if they could have found work at home that could have provided equal or better pay.

A representative for the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), a trade association whose members include Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Norwegian, told Business Insider that "some member lines have engaged in partnerships with training institutions in developing nations to increase their numbers in leadership positions."

The representative added that "cruise lines invest heavily to attract the best people, offering an extremely competitive package of wages and benefits, as well as ensuring crew members have the training to perform jobs skillfully and advance on a rewarding career path."

"We recognize all industries have a small number of unsatisfied employees; however, the cruise industry is proud to report that the thousands of employed crew members are very satisfied with current jobs and opportunities for career advancement," the representative said. "In fact, employee-retention rates in the cruise industry are upwards of 80%. "

Officers get favorable treatment, workers say

Aida Carvalho, who is from Brazil and was a human-resources manager for MSC Cruises, Viking Cruises, and Holland America Line from 2015 until February 2019, said there was a large gap between the monthly pay of the highest and lowest-ranking employees. Galley workers, who are responsible for tasks related to cleaning and waste disposal in a ship's kitchen, could make less than $800 per month, while captains could make about $15,000 per month.

"It's not fair that someone will work 11 hours a day dealing with garbage and [get] only $700," she said.

Carvalho said she was fired from Holland America in February after an employee told her about an allegation that a captain was covering up unprofessional behavior from subordinates. Carvalho intended to investigate the allegation to determine if it had merit, but before she could do so, her supervisor, a human-resources manager from Holland America's corporate offices, told the captain about the planned investigation, Carvalho said. The supervisor then accused her of creating false time sheets and having poor English skills, and fired her, she said.

"Captains, they hate my position on board because we are the only ones that can stop them doing stupid things," she said. "The captains really believe they are the owners of that ship, so it's impossible to fight that."

Holland America Line did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

A former photographer for Royal Caribbean, who is from Colombia said she felt as if officers treated each other with more respect than the workers they supervised. The former Royal Caribbean photographer, who worked for the cruise line from 2016 until June 2018, said one of her managers would comment on her sexual orientation and tell her he didn't like that she wore the same hairstyle every day.

"Whenever it comes to an officer or a manager, they like to treat each other with respect. But if you're not a manager or an officer, they just see you as their slave," she said.

Royal Caribbean Cruises did not comment on the specifics of the former photographer's account, but a representative for the company said it "has zero tolerance for any form of discrimination or retaliation, and our employees are encouraged to report such conduct to management on the ships or to management at our headquarters."

cruise company median annual earnings 2018 chartShayanne Gal/Business Insider

Crew and lower-paid staff members were not the only ones who said there were differences in how officers and crew members are treated.

A former assistant food and beverage manager who is from Britain and worked for the Carnival subsidiary Princess Cruises between 2011 and 2013 was surprised by the working conditions of employees from developing countries like the Philippines, India, and Mexico, including their daily schedules, the length of their contracts, and the fact that they were not allowed on the ship's upper deck.

"Being an officer, I had it quite good, but I was shocked at the way the other employees were treated," he said.

Before they can serve passengers, some crew members, like cleaning staff, serve the ship's employees during their training period, the former assistant food and beverage manager said. He noticed that some staff members and officers would have crew members who were in training run personal errands for them, like picking up laundry, food, or alcohol.

"They're almost like slaves who live on these minuscule tips by the officers," he said. "It feels really colonial."

A representative for Carnival Corp., which owns Princess Cruises, said Princess Cruises' company culture has led over 10,000 employees to spend more than a decade working for the cruise line. Like other companies, Princess Cruises gives different benefits to employees based on their ranks, not their home countries, the representative said.

Have you worked on a cruise ship? Do you have a story to share? Email this reporter at mmatousek@businessinsider.com.

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