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The Cruise Ship Workforce

Who Bakes the Croissants and Teaches the Samba?
by andrew l. yarrow

andrew yarrow, a former New York Times reporter, teaches at George Mason University.

Published TK


Unlike most librarians, Regina Salazar Cordova spends most of the year sailing aboard the Crystal Serenity, a luxury cruise ship that takes guests on five-figure vacations in the Caribbean, South Pacific and Asia. From her desk on deck seven, she has never-ending views of the sea and shorelines while helping occasional visitors find books or navigate the ship’s internet service.

Envious? Maybe you shouldn’t be. Traveling the world may seem like a dream job, but Salazar is away from her two children in the Philippines for up to nine months at a stretch, never has a full day off, shares a cabin with several roommates, and makes less than $1,500 per month. “I’m a very positive person,” she said. “But it’s not easy at all being away from your family. And it can be quite challenging to work with people of different nationalities, beliefs and personalities.”

Five decks above in the Palm Court, Martin Chow’s job is to waltz or foxtrot with mostly older, unmarried women passengers. Mr. Chow, a 62-year-old retired computer programmer from Vancouver, isn’t paid — but volunteers as a part-year onboard dance host in return for room and board “so that I can see the world,” he explained.

While Salazar is among a half million people, most of them from developing countries where good jobs are scarce, who work as “seafarers” in the global cruise industry, Chow is part of a secondary workforce of Americans and other rich-world adventurers, some paid, some not, who serve in a variety of capacities as onboard “talent.” This is the hybrid labor force undergirding a large and growing sector of the global travel industry — one that has come roaring back after Covid-19 hammered the cruise lines in 2020.

Although staffing needs plainly vary, the big ships have about one crew member to every 2.25 passengers, with the ratio closer to 1:1 on luxury lines like Crystal — somebody, after all, has to be awake at 3 a.m. to bake the morning pains au chocolat.

According to the Cruise Lines International Association, the industry expects to board some 36 million paying passengers in 2024, 20 percent more than in 2019. "Overall, the market is extremely strong, especially the top end,” Bob Levinstein, CEO of online cruise broker Cruise Compete, told Reuters.

Of course, like hotels, cruise ships range from budget to very high end. Some offer sophisticated tours on intimate vessels, where moonlighting professors lecture about the Galapagos or Antarctica, to 1,200-foot behemoths like Royal Caribbean’s spanking new Icon of the Seas that treat 7,000 passengers to everything from an ice-skating arena to the world’s tallest floating waterslide.
Love It or Leave It

Ever since “The Love Boat” debuted on ABC in 1977, transforming the industry’s image from aspirational to accessible luxury, cruising has had legions of both fans and foes. Millions are addicted to the experience of a floating hotel where calories don’t count that deposits guests at new fantasy destinations almost daily. Onboard pools and spas, nightclubs and theaters, fancy shops and comfort food of every sort only add to the unworldly sense of being free of ordinary restraints on self-indulgence. And for those old enough to remember, there is sometimes a whiff of the glamour of the great ocean liners that transported the rich and famous from New York to Le Havre, Southampton to Bombay.

To be sure, some people would never be caught dead on a cruise ship. To them, 200,000-ton megaships with their ziplines, dive pools and 24-hour pizza bars are the claustrophobic equivalent of all-inclusive resorts where the main pastime is drinking oneself into oblivion before stumbling back to a nondescript room.

Accordingly, four-day journeys to the Bahamas from Florida can be had for less than $500 per person, whereas a 141-night world cruise for two with a 1,265-square-foot penthouse on the aforementioned Crystal Serenity would set a couple back a half-million dollars. In between, there are cruises for almost every taste — from the midmarket ships of Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian to barebones riverboats that venture down the Amazon or Mekong.

At Your Service

Although half of global cruise passengers are American, economics dictates that cruise-ship workers are disproportionately recruited from developing countries such as the Philippines, which is home to almost half of the workers on Norwegian’s 31 ships. Indeed, Filipinos account for almost 30 percent of the overall industry workforce, with most of the rest coming from other low-opportunity labor markets — think India, Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe and former Soviet republics.

Royal Caribbean — which employed 66,000 people before the pandemic and whose brands include Royal Caribbean, Celebrity and Silversea — operates recruitment programs in the Philippines, China and Indonesia. And no matter how you slice it, this remains a buyers’ market. According to the CLIA, “For every job opening onboard a cruise ship, cruise lines receive 100 applicants, …[while] the retention rate across the industry is upward of 80 percent.”

“Workers” may be a better term than “employees,” given that many jobs are contract positions typically lasting from 2 to 11 months. Cruise lines generally do not discuss pay and benefits, although Carnival and Royal Caribbean — both publicly traded companies — reported median compensation of around $15,000 in 2022. CruiseCritic discussion boards are filled with complaints of minimal pay and exploitative working conditions. 

Those $15,000 wages look pretty good in the context of home labor markets. Moreover, because cruise workers don’t pay for housing or food, they are able to remit much of it to support their families. And then there’s the value of the work experience.

The Maritime Labor Convention specifies that working hours should not exceed 14 per 24-hour period or 77 per week, but there are no days off — only hours between shifts. “The contrast between the glamorous image painted by the industry and the reality of workers on board is truly striking,” said Maya Schwiegershausen-Guth of the Aviation and Maritime Industry section of Verdi, the German trade union.

Workers are not only away from their families for long stretches, but usually must share cramped cabins (sometimes below the waterline) with bunk beds separated only by curtains. The close quarters can, however, have an upside: crew members develop close friendships, along with anything-goes party cultures. As one worker told Buzzfeed: “We get wasted all the time, as the crew bar is so cheap.”

Cruise lines use “hiring partners” who prescreen applicants for the companies’ in-house recruiters and schedulers. Once a new hire is assigned to a ship, the hiring partner helps them apply for visas and makes medical and travel arrangements.

As noted above, there is no shortage of job applicants and not likely to be anytime soon.

Those $15,000 wages look pretty good in the context of home labor markets. Moreover, because cruise workers don’t pay for housing or food, they are able to remit much of it to support their families. And then there’s the value of the work experience. “Workers also have opportunities for training and advancement within the industry,” notes Macinzie McFarland of the CLIA. Probably as important, experience on a name-brand cruise line, along with the chance to polish foreign languages, is a valuable credential for working back home in the high-end hospitality industry.

Bridge Instruction and Lifestyle Inspiration

Following a very different track, the speakers, instructors, dance hosts and even clergy are typically recruited through South Florida agencies like Compass and Sixth Star. These are people like Martin Chow — or Kevin Soden, a 78-year-old physician from North Carolina who has been lecturing on cruise ships since 2019 about “aging with style and grace.”

“People are smart on high-end cruises and want to learn, but I always try to make my talks engaging,” he said. “It’s fun to meet other well-educated people.” 

Compass and Sixth Star also recruit art, dance and bridge instructors, as well as hosts to smooth the way for singles onboard. Compass instructs its “gentlemen hosts” to dress “appropriately,” refer to single passengers as “independent travelers” and “move around the room and be mindful of the ladies seated in back.” 

“It’s not really work,” said Mr. Chow. “I get to dance with lovely women. The only trouble I ever had was when I danced with a married lady and her husband wrote a letter saying I should not swim around his wife like a shark.”

main topic: Workforce
related topics: Transportation