The Perfect Scam

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

During the past two months New Times interviewed twenty Carnival workers, including the three cooks, and reviewed court testimony from dozens of others. Most complained of shifts up to sixteen hours long, seven-day work weeks, no days off for several months, and wages far below legal American standards. Many have lost hope of job advancement after several years of service. Other amenities most U.S. citizens take for granted, like sick pay, vacations, and retirement benefits, the crew members say, are insufficient or nonexistent. Some, especially black workers from Caribbean islands, contend they are targets of bigotry.

Fueled by maritime tradition, federal legislation, and U.S. Supreme Court rulings, Carnival Corporation's revenues swelled from $45 million in the Seventies to $3.5 billion, resulting in a $1 billion profit, in 1999. You might think such a company, which is based in the United States and peddles a week or two of luxury on the seas, would pay its employees salaries above the national poverty level. But it doesn't. Indeed it is possible Carnival and other U.S.-based cruise companies violate a chapter of federal labor law that specifies employees must be paid while in U.S. waters, according to a top-ranking official at the U.S. Labor Department interviewed by New Times.

Like most American companies that operate commercial vessels, Carnival registers its ships in foreign countries, where there is an endless supply of workers willing to toil long hours for a pittance, and few labor unions to get in the way. "You still have circumstances in agriculture and in some sweatshop industries where people will bring foreign workers into the United States expressly for the purpose of having a slave workforce. But there's no way you can do it in compliance with the law," says Peter Rutledge, a staffer of the U.S. House Education and the Workforce Committee. "What's different about the cruise industry is you have the same kind of exploitative conditions going on, but they are all lawful."

At a Catholic-run workers' sanctuary, one counselor compares cruise ship life to surviving a Third World dictatorship
Michael Marko
At a Catholic-run workers' sanctuary, one counselor compares cruise ship life to surviving a Third World dictatorship
When their ships come in, Carnival workers get some quality time with their loved ones  --  talking long-distance on pay phones at the Port of Miami
Michael Marko
When their ships come in, Carnival workers get some quality time with their loved ones -- talking long-distance on pay phones at the Port of Miami

Carnival, whose subsidiaries operate a total of 45 cruise ships worldwide, has yet to respond to a request New Times made last November to tour Destiny or another of the fourteen craft called "fun ships." Regarding inquiries about working conditions, public-relations director Jennifer de la Cruz insisted on receiving faxed questions, but then failed to reply to several of the most controversial queries. She did not respond to several phone calls seeking follow-up comment. "Shipboard employees' workload is usually limited to an average of ten hours a day," according to Carnival's written response, which came from the desk of de la Cruz's assistant Irene Lui. But the company doesn't disclose its salaries. "Shipboard positions are very sought after in employees' home countries because, although the hours are long, the pay is attractive."


Until this century ships usually flew the flag of the country where their owners lived. Had that custom survived, many seafarers would today be protected by the labor laws of industrialized nations. Instead another tradition has flourished. "Being a seaman was always considered to be a terrible job," says Bob Jarvis, maritime law professor at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale. "There's been a long history in this industry of paying workers very, very badly. It's the reason that so few Americans want to be seamen ... because being a seaman is incredibly difficult, dangerous, hard work.... Your home is your workplace, and it's a very demanding workplace because if a fire breaks out or the weather changes ... you are living in these very cramped quarters and you're always on call. It's just not a very good life. Most people do it for a relatively short amount of time if they have any other options."

To some bedraggled mariners it must have seemed this would change in 1938, when Congress passed the U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act, one of the pillars of workers' rights in this nation. But the legislation provided exemptions that allowed vessel owners to avoid paying seamen minimum wage or overtime. Lawmakers and shipping companies held that these exceptions were necessary, among other reasons, to ensure the economic viability of the marine industry. "That tradition comes from hundreds of years ago," explains Jarvis. "American ship owners did not want to pay overtime under any circumstances. They wanted to simply say to the crew member: 'We're paying you ten dollars a day and your day is as long as the captain decides it needs to be.'"

In the late Forties the United States government helped spawn an American-owned, foreign-flagged merchant marine by selling cargo and troop-transport ships to privately held corporations. As American unions organized and won pay raises in the Fifties, shipping companies accelerated the rush toward foreign flags, sometimes termed flags of convenience. The U.S. military, which relied on commercial vessels during wartime and was interested in preserving American ownership, approved of the trend. "One problem in the U.S. is that in time of war we do not have enough navy ships," Jarvis says. "When the American ship owners said, 'We're going to get out of the business or you're going to let us flag foreign,' the Defense Department said, 'As long as you have ships that we can grab in time of war, we don't care if you flag them U.S. or you flag them foreign....' The U.S. ship owners said, 'We have got to get out from under the U.S. flag because it is becoming even more expensive.'" Jarvis says it is typically at least 50 percent more expensive to operate a U.S.-flagged vessel than one with a flag of convenience, mainly because of labor costs.

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