The Perfect Scam

For the workers life is no carnival, believe it or not

In an obscure corner of the Port of Miami, a floodlight haze surrounds a huge tiki hut, where two men from a faraway land sit at a picnic table and contemplate their so-called lives. Directly before them tennis players swat balls on an illuminated court and nearby, dance music blasts from a set of speakers at a party on the wooden deck of the Leiv Eiriksson Center for seamen. These South Asian seafarers -- one short, one tall, and both with thick black mustaches -- are accustomed to being on the margins of good times. They live in a unique form of servitude that they have escaped for the night. Although they speak freely, they want to remain anonymous. "Give us French names," says the short one, with a laugh. Call him Jacques; his cohort shall be François.

Fate brought them here. So did Destiny, the Carnival cruise ship. The big boat also delivered the dozens of partiers gathered around the center's hexagonal tables and purple sun umbrellas. The revelers are all members of the vessel's 1050-strong crew: busboys, bellhops, mechanics, nurses, day-care workers, gift shop managers ... the list goes on. François and Jacques are cooks who, along with janitors, suffer the worst of Carnival Cruise Lines' low pay, excessive hours, and generally miserable working conditions. Normally Destiny docks here at its home port for about eight hours before departing with about 2600 passengers for another weeklong Caribbean tour. But because the four-year-old, $400 million ship is undergoing maintenance, the workers are in port for seven days.

Usually at this hour Jacques would be in the midst of his fourteen-hour workday, which begins at 4:00 a.m., when he rolls out of a double bunk bed after only three or four hours of sleep in a windowless cabin below the water level. During the half-hour it takes him to get ready for the day, he showers and shaves in a bathroom shared with a roommate and two men from an adjacent cabin. Then he dresses and heads to work on the third deck. He does so without breakfast, because ship rules prohibit crew members from keeping food in their cabins, and the staff dining room is closed until 6:00 a.m. His supervisors don't allow him to eat on the job. "Of course we feel hungry!" he comments.

The Leiv Eiriksson Center for seamen is seldom seen by Carnival's tired, poor, huddled workers, who yearn for a day off
Steve Satterwhite
The Leiv Eiriksson Center for seamen is seldom seen by Carnival's tired, poor, huddled workers, who yearn for a day off

Next Jacques begins preparing ingredients for the breakfast buffet. He fetches loads of meat, eggs, vegetables, bread, and other items, then begins a dizzying rush of slicing, chopping, boiling, simmering, and frying. He moves from the kitchen's 90-degree heat into the freezer and back. He must deliver his creations to the main passenger galley by 6:00 a.m., when vacationers begin lining up for the breakfast buffet. Then he races back down to the prep kitchen and repeats the drill. At 10:00 a.m. the buffet line closes, and Jacques is finally allowed to eat. He then heads to his cabin for some desperately needed sleep. When insomnia hits, which is often because his biological clock is screwed up, he watches TV or reads. By 3:00 p.m. he must return to the kitchen for an eight-hour dinner shift. At 11:30 p.m. he descends again to the crew mess hall for his second and last meal of the day. Then it's off to his bunk.

Jacques, who recently began his fifth year with Carnival, does this seven days per week, nine months at a stretch. For the 98 hours he clocks weekly, he earns $150. That translates to approximately $1.50 an hour, about one-fourth the average wage of a burger flipper at a fast-food joint. François's schedule is similar, except his fifteen-hour shift begins at 7:00 a.m. and ends at 10:30 p.m., with a half hour off for lunch. François, who will complete his fifth year with Carnival in March, earns about $150 for his 105-hour week, or $1.45 an hour. That will amount to $6500 over the course of his ten-month contract. Like Jacques he communicates with his family by spending a small fortune calling from pay phones while in port.

Jacques and François say they have subjected themselves to this life -- they call it a nightmare -- for five years because their families at home depend on the income. Jacques supports not only his wife and their three-year-old son, but also his mother, brother, and sister. François, who holds a business degree from a university in his country, could not find sufficient work there to support his parents, his wife, and their two-year-old child before shipping out. Quitting is not an option. "We have to do it," Jacques says, impatiently, gravely. "We can't help it. We can't say no to our families. If we lose the job, what they going to do?"

A fellow cook, a gangly blond man from an Eastern European country, comes by and sits down at the picnic table. Call him Ivan. He earns roughly the same as the other two, $550 per month, far below the U.S. poverty level. The threat of returning to an economic disaster area back home keeps him and other workers on Carnival's parsimonious payroll. "The company will say, 'If you don't like [the salary] you can go,'" he observes. "It's like blackmail." Then he stands and walks toward the party.

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