Cruises Undercover

Reporter Paul Myles writes about his experience as an undercover waiter on board the cruise ship.

waiter-drinks-home-pageStepping off the ship after five weeks on board proved a bittersweet experience. My profound sense of relief was tainted as I thought about my colleagues back on the ship, forcing me to confront some uncomfortable truths about my own relative privilege.

I’d honestly never been so relieved to have a day off. I had been feeling beyond exhausted after just a week on the ship; I’d already done over 90 hours work if you include all the compulsory unpaid training sessions. I hadn’t even realised there were that many hours in the week!

I was fighting just to find the time to unpack my bag or get my bearings on this enormous ship, let alone get a proper night’s sleep. The job was gruelling and relentless: no such thing as a quiet shift, and no respite from hoarding heavy trays back and forth in the huge restaurants, under the constant hawkish supervision of unsympathetic supervisors. Without a day off, working breakfast, lunch and dinner, it really felt like I was running to keep up with a treadmill. I was spent after just over a month, and I’ll never know if (or how) I’d have managed to keep up the pace for the duration of my six month contract.

This sentiment was captured poignantly as I exited the ship in Genoa. I bumped in to a colleague from the Ukraine. Noticing the rucksack on my back, he realised I was leaving. He had done six months of an eight-month contract. He complained that his back was hurting, his feet were sore and that he felt exhausted. Cutting a despondent figure as he headed back on board for yet another long shift, he said he had no idea how he was going to get through the final two months.

It was hard to feel good about leaving the boat. With debts to pay off, a shortage of jobs at home and families to feed, quitting just wasn’t a realistic option for many of my colleagues. What’s more, it had long become apparent that many of them were getting a far rougher deal than I was.

I met an Indian dishwasher, earning approximately $2 an hour, on an eight-month contract without a single day off, who had to borrow money to pay a $3500 agency fee to join the ship. He reckoned he would probably have worked about a year without managing to save anything. Given he hadn’t seen his family for a year and a half and had one of the most physically demanding jobs on board, his story is the one that made me most immediately angry and upset.

Similarly, a Guyanan cleaner had paid so much for his flights and medical to join the ship, that after he clocked off his night shift he would clean better-paid colleagues’ cabins to earn extra money to supplement his meagre earnings. He said all he really did was work, eat and sleep. Do anything else and his mind would stray to his family back home, which resulted in tears.

Family was a frequent topic of conversation among workers, who would bemoan missing the birth of their child, or the funeral of a relative. For many colleagues, coming on the ship was simply an act of sacrifice for the children they had left behind.

One of the bleakest images to stick with me is that of a Jamaican lady, who told me that due to her schedule, she hadn’t been off board to get proper fresh air for five months. On the ship, to have a drink with friends, to take a walk or to pursue a hobby more often than not would be at the expense of sleep. I’ve never felt so grateful for weekends.

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