Below Deck: A Dickensian Horror Story

Photo by Pete Markham (CC BY-SA 2.0)

At The California Sunday Magazine, Lizzie Presser reports on the Dickensian treatment of Filipino workers aboard Carnival Cruise Line ships — where the routine involves 12 and 14-hour days, seven days a week for paltry pay and zero overtime — just to be able to provide better lives for families they rarely get to see. And, if they’re injured on the job? They’re essentially on their own.

When Regie stepped aboard the Sensation, his first ship, he was enchanted. Built by Carnival in 1993, it was huge — 14 stories tall and nearly three football fields long. Regie had never used a dishwasher, but now he was spending ten hours a day, every day, loading and unloading one and steaming pots as big as bathtubs. In his cream-colored, windowless cabin two levels below deck, there was the thrill of waves thudding against the hull, startling him awake. Even the routines felt exciting. He cleaned his navy-blue uniform in the evenings and reported to the kitchen, on deck eight, at 6 each morning.

Regie’s wages washing dishes — which came to about $1.75 an hour — were on the lower end of Carnival’s pay scale. He figured that if he was giving up time with his family, he might as well make as much money as he could.

The salary would be enough to send his kids to private school, and the 48-hour workweek sounded standard. Regie didn’t notice that his $450-a-month pay was fixed, even if he put in up to 70 hours a week. He also didn’t see the clause at the bottom of the third page that barred him from seeking protection under U.S. law if he were injured.

In those early years, Regie never complained. He had accepted that the monthly two-and-a-half “paid leave days” in his contract would not be honored. Instead, he worked every day. If he was lucky, his managers gave him two daytime hours off each week, sometimes four.

In interviews with ten Carnival Cruise Line employees with a combined 70 years of experience on different ships, all said that the number on the Fun Time screen appeared in red when they logged more than ten hours. Room stewards, cooks, and waiters explained that, in these cases, a supervisor would call them, reduce their hours to ten (or, in rare instances, 11), and then ask that employees sign back in to Fun Time to approve the adjusted time sheet.

Read the story