8 things about the cruise ship industry you didn’t know
8) There are no days off.
Whenever I told people I worked on cruise ships they would assume it was a non-stop party, which while partly true, ignores the fact that you work a lot of hours. For Western bar and wait staff contracted hours are 70 per week, and if you’re lucky you might get one afternoon off per cruise (which can be two weeks). But you’re not even guaranteed that. I once had a boss who would punish any infringement by taking away my “off”. At one point I went three months without a single afternoon off! But it could be worse: While western staff work six months on and three months off, Indian and Filipino crew do nine months for the same amount of leave.
7) The food must be really good for staff with all those fine dining restaurants on board, surely? Erm… no.
Cruises are famous for unlimited high quality 24-hour food for guests, which leads people to think that food for staff must also be great. Far from it. This has a lot to do with staff hierarchy. There are officers (1 gold star or above) who get days off and can eat where they like. Then there are “leading hands” (half to 2.5 silver stars) with a private dining mess (think premium economy) and at the bottom there are crew, who eat in the main mess. Leading hands and crew get broadly similar buffet style food, which consists of Indian, Filipino and western dishes served with lashings of grease. This food briefly turned me into a vegetarian.
6) Every night must be a great party in all the bars? Again, no.
The ship I worked on boasted 14 bars (16 if you include the crew bar and officers’ bar) – the latter two being the only places crew were allowed to drink. So this is where the hierarchy comes in again. Officers, shop workers, and salon girls were free to eat and drink where they fancied, while mere minions could drink only in the crew bar, or the officers’ bar if invited. Officers on the other hand could go to the crew bar regardless. We might have had only one bar, but by jove did we make the most of it!
5) Seeing as you don’t have any bills you must save a ton of money.
OK so this one may not be true for everyone, and certainly my Indian and Filipino colleagues were sending most of their money home to their families, but I knew almost no Westerner managed to save a bean. As a bartender I was pocketing up to $3,000 a month, and while there may be no rent or bills to pay, there was the crew bar and occasional stops in places like Monte Carlo… I saved nothing.
4) You are earning a tax free wage.
Not many people know this, but cruise ships used to pay a lot more, until a young union chap by the name of John Prescott screwed it all up by encouraging the ships to move their registration to places like Bermuda. One concession we did manage to get was that we would pay tax at PAYE rates, but then claim it back from the tax man. Alternatively you can sit back and claim the dole.
3) The staff are not paid equally
There are two bartenders behind the bar, both doing the same job, but one is paid four times more than the other. This has nothing to do with skills or seniority, but everything to do with ethnicity. Terribly unfair, the fact of the matter is that if the pay was equally high, then the companies would not bother hiring Indians or Filipinos, and if the salaries were equally low it would be impossible to hire Westerners.
2) There are ranking systems – like the Navy.
What probably most shocked me when I first joined was the ranking and hierarchical ranking system. Your number of gold, or silver stars denotes where you could eat, drink or even where you could walk, or sit on the ship. You were also required to show the utmost of respect for anyone of a higher station than you.
1) There is a strict drinking limit!
Due to a crash many moons ago. there is actually a legal drinking limit for ALL members of crew on a ship. This roughly equates to the UK drink driving limit, and you can be breathalysed at ANY time – so technically you can never be drunk on a ship. Obviously the facts are somewhat different – I’ve never seen a drinking culture quite so intense as on cruise ships; most of the crew are drunk most of the time. But the breathalyser was a useful tool when the powers that be wanted to sack someone, as invariably that person would be drunk at some point.
Bonus round! Slang from the ships
Chicken or beef – If you get sacked you’ll have to fly home from wherever the ship is, and on the flight home you’ll probably be offered chicken or beef.
Taxi – When two people try to sneak off for private time in their cabin, it’s customary for those who spot them to shout “taxi”. Maybe immature, but always amusing.
The M1 – The area below the the first passenger deck that crew use for everything passengers don’t see.
D&V – To avoid Norovirus the moment someone has D&V (diarrhea and vomiting) they are made to stay in their cabin under quarantine. D&V can also stand for Drinking & Vodka, (another common cause of vomiting.)
IPM – In Port Manning. You surrender your crew card and are forbidden from leaving the ship, so that in case of emergency there’ll be enough staff on hand.
Lee has lived in China since 2006 and still doesn’t have bronchitis. He is YPT’s content manager and wrote a steampunk rip-off of Star Wars one time called ‘Tell no Tales’, available here: https://amzn.to/2SO7Qja