Carnival Paradise

Ji Seon and I recognize most cruise ship employees are very low paid.  Each employee’s name tag shows where the employee is from as if to advertise what a diverse, international crew the cruise line employs.  But the countries of origin are typically Romania, Ukraine, India, Philippines, Thailand and other poor countries.  We did not meet a single employee from the United States, Canada, Japan, South Corea or any western European country.

Ji Seon told me that cruise lines are always incorporated internationally in countries with poor labor laws so that they can pay their workers extremely low wages and make them work many long hours.

Recently Ji Seon and I have been learning about modern slavery through the Not For Sale series that our church, GrX, is running.  We asked ourselves a few times if any of the employees on this cruise could be slaves but decided they are probably not since a large corporation is their employer and they are free to leave.  However after coming back from the cruise I did a search and found this article, a cruise ship can be like a slave ship.

Larger cruise lines hire third world workers and even charge them a $2,000 fee or more to get the job. In Indonesia or India this is so much money that workers mortgage everything they own and/or they take out loans at exorbitant rates of interest… Then once he has his contract in his hand, he will only be offered a job like a potato peeler or a person stacking deck chairs. The pay will be lower than he anticipated. He will work continuously at least twelve hours a day for eight months or so. His airline ticket home will be deducted first, and after that he can be fired with any infraction of the rules and sent home at his own expense. He must, in other words, work as an indentured servant for three or four months, before financially breaking even.

"a cruise ship like a slave ship." open salon. January 4, 2009.

On the last dinner of our latest cruise on the Carnival Paradise I noticed my waiter was not being nearly as friendly as he usually is.  I asked him at the end of dinner how he was doing and that I noticed he seemed a bit down.  He said he was just tired because he had been working since 6 AM.

It becomes more and more depressing to try to be an aware consumer.

15 Responses to “Why I Don’t Like Cruising – Poor Working Conditions”

changed wrote a comment on June 23, 2009

That’s a really tough situation. The fact that they operate under no national law, and that the exploitation doesn’t lend itself to photo-ops (think: children in sweatshops) makes it really hard to even raise consciousness about the issue.

In the bigger picture, just about everything we enjoy as Americans (ok, even Canadians living in the U.S.) comes at the expense of some poor laborers in other countries. You’re right — it is depressing to be an aware consumer.

seonghuhn wrote a comment on June 23, 2009

You’re right changed, almost everything does come at the expense of some poor laborers in other countries. Maybe we can try to determine if the workers are well treated but this is almost impossible. I did happen to learn from a friend on the inside that Target does random inspections of its factories in China while Walmart schedules its inspections so that factory has plenty of time to make things look proper on inspection day and then go back to its old ways. This is why I shop Target and not Walmart.

changed wrote a comment on June 23, 2009

What would you do if you found out that Walmart had a more stringent lead-free-paint policy than Target? Or paid more to the workers in their factories? Or if they donate more profits to charity? I think it’s hard to make overall decisions based on single hot-button issues.

Further complicating matters is that compliance (to safety/health/worker standards) is very, very difficult to measure accurately. June spent a summer as an intern to a major U.S. toy company and was tasked with trying to tighten up the compliance reporting process. Complicated and difficult.

I wish I had simple answers. Or that more people (including myself) cared more than just getting the lowest price.

seonghuhn wrote a comment on June 23, 2009

Those are really good points. I guess you are saying all those points are true. Now you’ve complicated my Walmart boycott. I also went to Target because it’s closer. 🙂

There has to be a better answer. I don’t have one but we can’t ignore the issue either. Maybe I need to read a book about this.

changed wrote a comment on June 23, 2009

Oh no, I didn’t mean to say those points were true — it was only a hypothetical!

I guess what I’m saying is just shop where you want and assume that those two stores are about equal in their “environmental / social justice” factor. Until you’ve done or seen a believable comprehensive study, there’s no point in making snap judgments and boycotts.

Can we ignore the issue? Well, it depends on if there are more pressing issues at hand…

Mark R. wrote a comment on June 23, 2009

I don’t understand how a foreign laborer being paid for his job constitutes an expense on his part. Yes, his working conditions are abysmal compared to US standards. But they’re also competitive or better than his other options, or he wouldn’t be there. Some (many?) of those laborers consider their work to be a dream opportunity. That’s especially true if the alternative is subsistence-level farming — being at risk of starvation.

Such factories are a necessary rung on the ladder of economic development. Ultimately, the way for those laborers to be treated better is for their factories to be successful. More companies will come in and bid up their wages, and they’ll acquire skills and education. That’s what happened in Korea and other emerging nations.

Mark R. wrote a comment on June 23, 2009

I am, however, disappointed at the allegation that cruise workers are not paid according to the wages they were expecting — although the text makes it unclear why those workers were expecting more than an entry-level position.

seonghuhn wrote a comment on June 23, 2009

Hi Changed,
Well now that I know your points are hypothetical I will continue my boycott of Walmart. 🙂
There have been many different boycotts and allegations about Walmart’s labor practices. I have not fully investigated them but based on what I learned from a very reliable source it only confirms my suspicions about Walmart.

seonghuhn wrote a comment on June 23, 2009

Hi Mark,

The text I quoted is only a small part of the original article, “a cruise ship like a slave ship,” which is why it is probably confusing. Workers are often charged a fee of $2000 or more. Then they are also charged for other expenses like their airline ticket. In the end their wages end up being deducted to pay for these fees which is why they end up making no money for their first few months.

Apparently this is an illegal but common practice in the cruise ship industry.

It is true that this may be an improvement for the cruise ship employee compared to their previous situation. But we don’t know that for sure. And what about the fact that the average time a person works on a cruise ship is eight months, the length of one contract? Doesn’t such a fact seem to indicate that this was not an improvement?

And let’s assume this was an improvement. Does that mean we should be comfortable with people working 16 hours a day for sixty or ninety days straight because it’s better than their previous work? All of this so we can enjoy a cheaper cruise?

These questions aren’t easily answered and I don’t know enough about what’s going on. I am also not saying going on a cruise is a bad thing. I am just saying amongst the many things that made cruising less enjoyable for me was seeing workers being overworked and underpaid.

Boy this comment is almost as long as the original post. 🙂

seonghuhn wrote a comment on June 23, 2009

It should be stressed that not having access to the internet was probably the biggest downside for me about cruising. 🙂

mark.r wrote a comment on June 23, 2009

“Boy this comment is almost as long as the original post.”

Well, it is a complex issue. Thanks for your thoughts.

I don’t know anything about the cruise ship industry, so I won’t try to defend it. If conditions are as you describe, where the average worker works for eight months and returns no richer for it, then I find that appalling, and I’m disappointed that such conditions persist. The free market only works to the extent that property rights and contracts are enforceable, not if one party enters into an agreement under coercion or deception.

What I wrote in my first comment was regarding third-world factories in general. Those countries are far better off for having them, and I would buy their products, because ultimately that will lead to their well-being. I find it unappealing to deny them my business. Perhaps that would lead employers to treat their employees better — but it would also reduce the only competitive advantage poor nations have: the willingness to endure poor conditions and low pay.

If requiring higher pay causes employers to turn away low-skilled people who would have accepted less money, I don’t think the country is better off for it. The effect is similar to a protectionist tariff, and tariffs produce deadweight loss.

seonghuhn wrote a comment on June 23, 2009

I too am comfortable w/ buying, let’s call them majority world, products. But I don’t think it’s unreasonable that we as consumers expect that the workers receive living wages and do not work in oppressive conditions. I think we would agree we would draw the line at slave labor. But how far above that line?

For example I read the story of a Chinese female factory worker who died after working something like 24 or 36 hours straight. I can’t accept that.

Fair trade coffee was created so that workers in those countries could get living wages. This is now happening w/ cocoa which right now is harvested 70% by child slave labor.

The history of the industrial revolution has been that the poor workers are exploited. This history is repeating in majority countries and does not have to be. We as consumers can say “I don’t mind paying 5% more if that means a substantial improvement in the conditions of the workers.” The country might be better off in terms of GDP but most of the poor are still not.

If we as American consumers said we expect the goods we consume to be made by workers who are given living wages in good working conditions then this does not cause countries to have to compete against each other to produce the lowest priced workers. Instead we as American consumers have demanded the lowest price regardless of anything else and it is the majority world laborers that pay for our savings.

mark.r wrote a comment on June 23, 2009

I’m with you regarding slaves, and that worker’s death is tragic.

I see several problems with fair trade coffee. One is the fact that little of the price premium gets to the grower; it’s difficult to push that money all the way down the supply chain. I believe that the larger effect is that the coffeehouse can identify less price-sensitive clients and charge them a premium. It’s similar to first-class airline seats or (in reverse) early-bird dinner specials. Another effect is that non-fair-trade coffee will be cheaper than it would otherwise be — with small but negative consequences for those growers.

I haven’t studied the Industrial Revolution, so I won’t comment on any exploitation at that time. But it’s not clear to me that demanding better pay for workers is in their best interest. Why ought we to require more than those workers are themselves asking?

If we impose wage controls and working conditions, some people will be refused who would have accepted less. To them I could offer no explanation — especially since they are the most desperate of all the job applicants.

mark.r wrote a comment on June 23, 2009

“But it’s not clear to me that demanding better pay for workers is in their best interest.”

To clarify — obviously, it’s in their interest for those who receive better pay. But the other effect will be reduced employment.

seonghuhn wrote a comment on June 23, 2009

I thought the point of fair trade coffee and other fair trade agreements was that the price premium goes to the grower. Everyone else in the chain was already doing quite well. I don’t know enough about it.

That’s a good point that higher wages could mean reduced employment. I don’t know enough about economics to say if that is always true. Could higher wages for those who are employed result in more money in the community thereby resulting in a better economic scenario? That’s just my hypothetical question.

I think some of my thinking comes from what I’ve read from modern slavery. You ask “Why ought we to require more than those workers are themselves asking?” My response is that these workers are coming from such poverty that they are not in a position to ask for anything. And we as consumers might be exploiting them for taking so much from them. These workers are often exploited such as the modern slaves who were tricked or the cruise workers who thought they were getting higher paid jobs.

If I’m at the market and someone is so poor that they say “I’ll shine your shoe for a penny.” do we say “Sure!” Or do we say “That’s too little, I’ll give you more.”

I’m not sure what the right answer is but it’s not right that I have cheap clothes or all you can eat shrimp because someone is working under oppressive conditions. And I do like shrimp. 🙂

Care to comment?