The Perfect Scam

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


Unfortunately Jacques and François are in good company. In interview after interview, Carnival workers tell similarly grim tales. Andre (an alias) works 70 hours per week as a janitor, cleaning guest cabins, hallways, dining areas, you name it. An energetic 27-year-old from Saint Vincent, his salary is $452 per month, or about $1.60 per hour for the duration of his nine-month contract. Although he's been working for Carnival five years, his pay recently was reduced by $80 per month. "They chopped it down," he fumes. Andre is not sure what prompted the reduction, but he thinks his supervisors would brand him a troublemaker if he complained. Morale is low among his fellow islanders. "We work really hard, mon," he says in his Antillean brogue. "A lot of people saying they're going home [after their contract ends] and no comin' back, mon."

Andre's compatriot Yves, who earns a $240 per month salary and another $400 in tips as a bellman, sometimes thinks about quitting. "Lot of craaazy things goin' on," he says angrily. "We are black. Sometimes there is some kind of discrimination onboard." For example he claims some light-skinned security guards act like prison wardens. "As soon as we put on reggae music [in the crew bar], the guards come and turn it off," he says. "They come and treat us like we're in jail or something. We're not making any trouble." Guards also hassle him when he is off-duty and passing through the hotel portion of the ship. "If I stand too long in the public area, the security guard come along and ask, 'What you doin'?' A lot of bullshit goin' on," he concludes. "You have some crew members who don't like black people. You expect it from the passengers, but not from the crew. You have to unite when you're on a ship."

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

The pay is so lousy that some employees seek out additional jobs, prolonging their already lengthy workdays. For instance, after his eight-hour shift, which stretches from 10:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m., Yves moonlights as a janitor several days per week. Carnival's written response explains the arrangement this way: "This would be very similar to employees here in the U.S. taking on a part-time evening or weekend job to supplement their full-time jobs. While this allows them to earn additional income, it is left solely to the employees' discretion, and Carnival is not involved in these actions."

Carnival also saves money by cutting workers' pay when they are on sick leave. In 1997 Alberto Garcia, a native of the Dominican Republic, was earning $500 per month working twelve-hour days (about $16 per day) as a maintenance man on Imagination. That year he hurt his lower back while hauling a line used to attach the ship to a Port of Miami pier. He went to the infirmary, where a doctor gave him some painkillers and sent him back to work. Although he was in extreme pain, Garcia says his supervisor told him he would be sent home if he requested medical leave. Fearing for his job, he toughed it out for another year as the agony increased.

In December 1998 Carnival doctors finally recommended time off. As stipulated in his contract, the company reduced Garcia's salary to $12 per day. He underwent surgery for a herniated disk this past August. A friend put him in touch with maritime lawyer Charles Lipcon, who is suing Carnival for damages and lost wages. "It is the modus operandi of Carnival doctors not to tell the workers exactly what [ailment] they have," notes Marco Barbosa, a private investigator who works with Lipcon.

In its brief written response, Carnival acknowledges sending some injured workers to their home countries, adding "they are provided with a daily stipend to cover their out-of-pocket room-and-board expenses."

Workers typically shell out hundreds of dollars before they can even start their cruise ship careers. Carnival has contracts with employment agencies around the world that charge new hires up to $1500 for job placement. In addition recruits must pay the equivalent of one-way airfare from their home country to the port of their assigned ships. A Paradise cook from India, who asked to remain anonymous, says he gave a Bombay agency $2000, which included airfare. That sum, much of which he borrowed from relatives, is almost a third of the $7000 he will make during his current ten-month contract. The man, who supports five people including his wife and four-year-old son, has not received a promotion in five years. (Carnival usually returns the agency payment and airfare after several years of service -- without interest -- workers report.)

The cruise company also requires staff members who interact with passengers -- waiters, busboys, and bellhops -- to pay a $50 deposit for their uniforms. "It's a big robbery, mon," protests Pierre, another Caribbean islander, who began working for Carnival in 1994 as a $360-per-month snack bar attendant. "This is a very thinking company," he observes.

And the company employs one more method to keep labor costs low and workers hustling: getting customers to shell out tips. Large numbers of personnel receive a minimal base wage and must depend on the kindness of strangers. Take Pierre, for instance. He's currently one of about 80 busboys on Destiny (and has not been promoted in four years). He can earn as much as $500 per week in tips, he says. Carnival's contribution is only $45 per month, less than he earned many years ago cutting sugar cane in Barbados. During the ship's weeklong maintenance, he received only that base pay. (Under U.S. law even tipped personnel, on land of course, are entitled to the minimum wage of $5.15 per hour.) "It is quite a system," Bob Jarvis marvels. "And it is all perfectly legal and extremely lucrative."

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