The Perfect Scam

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

It may be legal, but it's not moral, says Maria Jimenez, an Episcopal minister at the Seaman's Church Institute of Florida. She operates Seafarers' House, which provides counseling and other services for cruise ship workers. "They're in bad shape," she says of the hundreds of crew members she meets each year. "This is the only chance they think they have to fulfill their dream of making some money. And though they end up receiving dollars, that doesn't justify [a cruise ship company] not protecting their rights.... They have needs, and an American company needs to respond to those needs, like recreation, proper rest, and food. Not just to get the most out of them because they are cheap and in need. That's taking advantage [of them]."

Jimenez continues: "I have developed an appreciation for what these men and women give us, contribute to our economy, our welfare. The people on the cruise ships provide for our entertainment.... So they serve our needs, and we are morally obliged to give something in return."

The International Transport Workers Federation, an organization representing five million trade union members worldwide, is trying to reward the cruise ship workers with union rights. "We want to drive these ships back to a U.S. flag," says Tony Sasso, a federation member who inspects labor conditions on commercial vessels in South Florida. "But more realistically we are trying to get some of these companies under an ITF-approved collective bargaining agreement." So far Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd., is the only American-based cruise ship corporation to accept such an accord, he says. Sasso adds Carnival won't allow him onboard to inspect working conditions. "Carnival is the big nut to crack," he says.

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

"You go on a U.S.-flagged ship," he continues, "you might work eight to twelve hours, and you get overtime after that. You normally work twelve hours a day, and you get three or four hours of overtime a day. You have certain rules about how much sleep you got to get and how much ... you can do before you get a rest period. It's traditional and it's Coast Guard-[required]. But [Carnival] doesn't fall under all those rules. Why do you think they go and flag these things in the Bahamas and Liberia and Cyprus and wherever else? Because they don't have to abide by rules and labor standards that any decent people would consider."

That argument doesn't float with Carnival, Jarvis comments. "In fairness to Carnival and all the other cruise lines, how could they justify paying [workers] more when they have stockholders who are going to say, 'Now let's get this straight. You didn't have to pay them this much but you did and our dividends and our profits are not as great?'" he wonders. "That is the problem that corporations always face. They are answerable to stockholders, and stockholders are only interested in one thing: maximizing profit."

Back at the tiki hut, François and Jacques have lost interest in the festivities. It is now about 10:00 p.m., roughly the time they would be finishing up their fourteen- to sixteen-hour kitchen stints. They believe Carnival has the means to treat its workers better. "Carnival is a very rich company," Jacques says sadly. "But most of the crew members are not happy with Carnival. Maybe in the officers' section they are. They enjoy life."

After years of toil in Carnival's kitchens, Jacques and François think they deserve promotions to another, less hellish department. But they have lost all hope of reassignment to positions with more reasonable schedules. "We are trying to go outside the galley but nobody wants to come in," François says. The reason is simple, adds Jacques: "Because nobody like to work as a cook, for low salary and long hours."

Because Carnival tends to deploy workers to different ships when it renews contracts, the pair likely will split up when François's current contract expires this spring. "Maybe we won't see each other again," François laments. The cooks think their employer designed the ship-rotation system to keep employees from forming too much camaraderie, which might lay groundwork for union organizing. "There is no possibility of [forming] a union on the ship," François adds. "Nobody's going to attempt that. Somebody attempt to talk like that, he'll be fired." Jacques concurs: "They'll just send him a [termination] letter and that's it."

And so ends a rare night out for Jacques and François. They walk from the tiki hut, stroll along the perimeter of the party without stopping, and begin the fifteen-minute hike back to their Destiny. "It's impossible to keep doing this," sighs François. And yet somehow he and thousands of other Carnival workers do.

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