On 1st October 2012, Channel 4 broadcast an episode of their Dispatches current affairs programme entitled “Cruises Undercover: The Truth Below Deck”. It started at 8 pm and ran for 30 minutes.
It was filmed on the Celebrity Eclipse, which, like most cruise ships serving the British cruise industry, sails under a flag of convenience. This means that the ship is registered in a country with less stringent laws, so that they don’t have to keep to the standards of a more demanding country. This applies to all aspects of the ship, including health and safety, hygiene and, as focussed on here, employment law. Frankly, I think we should be just as worried about the other two!
Before I discuss the issues raised, and not raised, in the programme, I need to clarify the starting point. The presenter, Tazeen Ahmad, has evidently never experienced anything like four or five star accommodation. Almost the first thing she says is how “opulent” the ship is. As an example of the level of ignorant and fatuous we are going to have to deal with, she actually says the words, “It really is like a five star hotel”. Of course it is, you stupid woman, it IS a five star hotel. She keeps bleating on about the size of the cruise industry (£21 billion a year business, 1.75 million people last year took a cruise), as if the sheer size of the industry should be enough to annoy us. Then she shows us her cabin. “It feels really comfortable and spacious”. Well, dear, it jolly well ought to. You have an outside stateroom with balcony on one of the most expensive ships in Europe. Apparently, having a “really nice bathroom and balcony and patio doors that you can just fling open” (no, really, those are her words), is somehow sinful and evil and shocking. Not following the logic thus far, Tazeen, but I’m sure I’ll catch up with you at some point. Apart from anything else, I’m not being paid to go on a cruise ship and enjoy myself and I can’t afford an outside stateroom with balcony, either.
But then she really blows the viewer’s mind. “On top of luxury, holiday makers also want value for money”. Really? How odd. “Nearly half of all UK cruise goers spend less than £1000 and take a week-long trip”. Well, no matter what kind of holiday I’m on, I’d be thinking twice if I was paying more than £100 a day per person for a shared room. That’s just NORMAL, dear. The first time I watched this programme, I actually wondered if Tazeen has never taken a holiday before in her entire life. In the UK, never mind abroad. She either has no sense of perspective, nor any idea of what things cost or she’s just trying to wind up the viewer so we’ll be extra angry when she finally gets to the point she’s supposed to be making. Three minutes in and still waiting on that, though.
Two minutes more, and at last she gets to the point. It’s about those working as crew and staff. She states, “Many of those… are from poor countries, where their wages can support whole families”. Isn’t that a good thing?! Is it not the whole point that one person’s wages supporting a whole family just makes them the breadwinner? Isn’t that the basis of much of family income across the globe? Granted, in some countries, a family can include more children and more siblings and older members than perhaps a UK nuclear family may contain, but if one person’s wages supports them all, then the children can go to school and not have to go out to work to help support everyone. This sounds like a good thing to me, but then I may understand global economics slightly better than Tazeen, who doesn’t seem to know much about anything at all, judging from her incredulous tone, which is a grating constant throughout.
This nonsense continues for some time. They put in an undercover reporter as a waiter. He is a white man in his thirties, which probably makes him stick out like a sore thumb below stairs. He works around 100 hours a week for what turns out to be about £1 an hour after deductions, including uniform and medical and visa costs. He earns twenty US dollars for 12 days and at the end, including tips, he gets £532.59.
So, shock horror, he had to work hard. 16-hour days. Poor petal. There are plenty of people who work harder than that. In fact, if he had been on board during a norovirus outbreak, he would have had to work 21-hour days, 16 would have been a wistful memory. She also completely omitted turn-around day, when every steward and waiter becomes a baggage handler for the day. Now THAT is hard work.
There were two genuinely serious points made (badly) by the programme.
Firstly, by using a flag of convenience, Celebrity, which is part of the same group as P&O Cruises, can bypass UK employment law, which now states that tips cannot be used as salary. They must be an extra. But we’ve only had that law since 2009, ourselves, so we’re not really in a position to criticise other countries for not keeping up, are we?! We also have a minimum wage. Malta does not. Neither, I believe, does Bermuda, which is the flag that P&O Cruises use.
Unfortunately, Tazeen also skips the paid overtime, free room and board, mandatory rest periods, medical care and sick pay, not to mention the chance to SEE THE WORLD. They’re not skivvies; this is not a slave galley. They get to go ashore and party like the rest of us. Just not as often. But trust me, if you want to know the best places to eat, drink, shop and visit in a new port, you should always ask your waiter. They will have been there before. This manifest bias rather dilutes the important points she was trying to make.
The second is the scandal of agents in these people’s home countries, charging hundreds, if not thousands of pounds, for the privilege of being put on a ship. They call themselves employment agents, but they are con men, ripping off those just trying to make a living for their families. That is a heart-breaking scandal and Carnival should be doing more to stamp it out.
But I have spoken to waiters and one said to me, “I will work another three years (so eight in total), then I will go home and use the money to buy a bar on the beach and retire”. How upset would you be if someone said to you, ‘You’ll have to work doubly hard but you can retire in EIGHT YEARS?’
Sadly, this documentary portrays a very skewed picture of the cruise industry, omitting any possible good or mitigation, and thus, it rather damages the points it was trying to make, just by sounding so spiteful and mean. In fact, I would describe Tazeen as sounding mostly jealous and petulant, and the quality of the ensuing journalism was decidedly limited.
The cruise industry is far from perfect, but it’s not the evil, decadent and maleficent monstrosity that Tazeen Ahmad and her editor would have us believe. Cruise away with a clear conscience.