Sweatships: what it’s really like to work on board cruise ships

Sweatships: what it’s really like to work on board cruise ships


Written by: Danny Reilly

This little booklet written by Celia Mather and published by the charity War on Want and the International Transport Workers’ Federation tells the horrific story that lies behind the luxury facade of the holiday cruise ships.

It is a tale reminiscent of the bad old days of the British Empire. Low wages and long hours for the Third World and east European workers below the water line, luxury living and leisure conditions for the mostly western tourists in their cabins and decks up above.

Seventy per cent of the 114500 workers on cruise ships are hotel and catering staff and are usually employed on short-term fixed contracts. The contracts are rarely specific to any one job, enabling the shipping companies to move the workers around at will. These seafarers are segregated both from the white officer and technician workers and, on pain of disciplinary action, from the passengers. But there is not only a colour/ race hierarchy; there is a sex element too. Increasingly, those low paid workers recruited for the ‘contact’ jobs with passengers are white east European women, even more so since 11 September 2001.

Recruitment – be it in Asia, the Caribbean, Latin America or eastern Europe – is often at a price. The charge to get a job frequently reduces the worker to a bonded labourer. Resistance to the harsh conditions is hampered both by hostility to trade unions by the cruise companies, and the practice of ethnically mixing crews to hinder communication, and thereby solidarity and unity. Legal remedies against the frequent violations of international laws and regulations are hampered by the use of ‘flags of convenience’ by the cruise companies. By registering ships in countries such as Panama, the Bahamas and Liberia, notorious for turning a blind eye to maritime regulations, the cruise companies can flout the law protecting seafarers’ rights.

In the face of the widespread exploitation of workers on cruises ships the ITF has launched a ‘cruise ship campaign’. Linked to this is War on Want’s ‘sweatships’ campaign in the UK. Through support for these campaigns, and the actions they coordinate, pressure is being brought to bear on the shipping companies. Read this booklet – it will help you see what is going on at sea. Then support the campaigns.

Related links

Get a copy of the Sweatships report.

War on Want

Sweatships: what it's really like to work on board cruise ships by Celia Mather is published by War on Want and ITF, London, 2002.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

3 thoughts on “Sweatships: what it’s really like to work on board cruise ships

  1. i wish icould find work on a cruise ship i dont care what jyoursob i do or the pay so if you could help i would be gratful yours b johnson 34 bracken bank cresent keighley west yorks bd227ax

  2. This article does not seem to relate to the real situation at all. I currently work on a cruise ship, they do not try to isolate you, they do not try to put anyone down. Yes there are rules and regulations as with any job in todays society, but they are not descriminatory towards anyone. You are able to move from any department you want to any job you want if you meet the qualifications(which do not include a racial bracket) In my time on ships I have met people from all corners of the world that hold every different position on the ship from officers to room stewards. This article seems to say that they are forcing people into jobs they do not want…well explain why there is so many applications for these positions. The hours are long but the rewards are well worth it. Long vacations, traveling all over the world and meeting some truly amazing people. So to the writers of this article I say “walk a mile in my shoes before you berate my job”

  3. I wish I could agree with you, but I don’t. There are thousands of applications a year because these companies market the glamour of travel and seeing exotic places. They normally want to recruit young people who believe that they will make money to secure their future, but they are more likely to be out of pocket after their experience. I am wondering why you are defending so much, interested to find out how old you are, and if a cultural change has perhaps occurred that makes young people more inclined to accept poor working condition, long working hours, insecurity of job contracts, sophisticated management brainwashing and the rest? Your defending makes me think back to the airline industry where I worked until 2000. I would never work under the terms and conditions that they do now.

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