3 Unpleasant Truths About the Cruise Ship Industry

It’s been a minute since I’ve updated with a post related to #shiplife – while I focus mostly on side-hustles these days, I still regard my time spent working on a cruise ship as, really, a seven-month long side-hustle. However, while I’ve posted about some downsides, here and there, those are about the experience of living on a ship itself. This time around, I’d like to speak more to the hiring practices.

Disclaimers:

+I only worked for one cruise-line, so my immediate experiences are only applicable to that. I will say, though, that I worked with a lot of people who themselves had worked for a lot of cruise-lines (my best friend onboard, her first ship was the Costa Concordia. Eesh) – that is, everything listed below, they’ve corroborated to be normal / frequent / common practice.

+If any of the following sounds sketchy or outright illegal, keep in mind that almost no American cruise-lines are beholden to U.S. Labor Laws: almost all of their ships are registered in the Bahamas, Panama, or somewhere similar.

To start…

It’s kind of racist.

By that, I mean, legitimately racist.

For those who don’t know, I’m a white American whose first language is English. On board, I worked as a Cruise Director Staff, a ‘front of the house’ position because I interacted with guests. Every teammate throughout my contract was either Caucasian, spoke English as a first language, or was from a developed country (or some combination thereof). When I say ‘every teammate’, it was between two ships and over seven months. I would estimate 20-25 people.

So, what? It’s not like the cruise line did that on purpose…

Wait. They totally did. Or, at least, their recruiters did.

In what’s a common practice, the cruise-line I worked with outsourced their recruitment and hiring to third-party agencies. A few months into my contract, I passed along my recruiter’s email to one of my bartender friends (AKA the people whom you want to ingratiate yourself to). He wanted to give it to his friend, who he thought would be a good fit for Cruise Director Staff; his friend was an emcee at a bar, ran karaoke shows, and did stand-up comedy on the weekend… holy guacamole, he seemed like a perfect fit!

I thought it’d be a no-brainer, and I felt good for having paid it forward. I checked in on the situation a few weeks later. Apparently, the recruiter had been quite cold and dismissive, telling his friend that they weren’t accepting applications from his country…

India, that is.

I was surprised, because the recruiter in question had been nothing short of my champion and spirit guide throughout the entire recruiting and hiring process. Digging a little, I peeked at her LinkedIn profile; out there in the open, for all to see, was the call for applicants only from: USA, the UK, Canada, Australia, Netherlands, and Germany.

Oh.

The subtext, here, is about as subtle as a punch in the face: “People of color need not apply.”

Nevermind the fact that Indians comprised the majority of our crew, 400 or so out of 2200 people (and their Independence Day party was f**king lit); the official stance of the recruiter (and thereby, the unofficial stance of the cruise line, because where-oh-where did she get her directives from…) is that they were only suitable for back-of-the-house positions.

I’d also like to point out that back-of-the-house positions weren’t allowed in guest areas while front-of-the-house (like mine) were.

I brought this up with my teammates, some of whom had worked on cruise ships for years, and it didn’t surprise them. They even upped the ante by offering up plenty of their own anecdotes about similar situations. It made me feel icky, hyper-aware of my own privilege in life, and contributed to my decision not to take on another contract.

 

Hope you’re not anything less than perfectly able-bodied.

So, being the white American that I was, I had passed the preliminary interviews and could join the applicant pool. A contract, however,  hinged on a recent physical saying I was in tip-top shape.

(Side note: I had to pay, myself, $400 for this physical. Ugh. Scammy? You bet. Not only that, but the nearest ‘pre-approved’ clinic that would do this particular physical was in motherf**king Chicago. I had to take a day off work and hop a train, four hours there and four hours back.)

What was in this physical?

  • Drug & pregnancy test
  • BMI measure
  • Range of motion measures
  • Chest x-ray
  • Blood work that checked for, I don’t know, everything
  • Sundry

Intensive.

There was never anything that explicitly stated that if you had medical issues that you would be immediately disqualified, but it was heavily implied…

Oh, yeah, and don’t be fat. More on that in a moment.

I passed my physical with only a few issues; there were blood and ketones in my urine at the time of the test. Well, simple. I was on my period and I keep to a ketogenic diet… common sense, prevails, right? Nope! I had to get documentation from my doctor that said the exact same thing I’d already told them. Also, at the time of my physical, I was getting over some sort of something, and I had elevated levels of my liver enzymes, so I had to redo the bloodwork for that.

Plus: I’m a size fourteen. HEAVENS FORBID. Otherwise healthy, but Just Too Fat for the cruise-line.

F**king bite me.

I promised that I would definitely lose weight and that it didn’t hinder me, as those stupid f**king range of motion tests showed. And, also, you know, being a size fourteen isn’t a disability.  They didn’t seem entirely happy with it, but I sneaked my way in, somehow.

Once onboard, I learned how pervasive the fear of being injured or otherwise incapacitated was:

  • One of my teammates dealt with chronic back issues, and there was serious discussion whether or not to send him home until he had healed. He bore through it, and our activities manager was at least thoughtful enough to assign him the less physical duties.
  • Another one of my teammates broke his leg during his vacation, benching him until he could be cleared for work.
  • A gal working in the salon became pregnant during her contract – AKA something that gets you kicked off the ship, immediately. 

None of these folks were outright fired, but getting sent home to heal… is kind of the same thing. The cruise line doesn’t pay you for your time off the ship. Considering a broken leg and a pregnancy, we’re talking about the better part of a year off the shipHope your savings (if any) carries you through. And separate health insurance, because that’s another thing – you’re covered medically only when you’re on board.

Speaking of lack of benefits…

There are no benefits.

I don’t mean spiritually or socially or whatever. I mean there is no:

  • Retirement plans
  • Paid time off / vacation / sick days
  • Stock options
  • Health insurance, aside from treating you when you’re on board… except, forget about dental or vision. One of my teammates needed some emergency dental work; to their credit, the onboard medical team did the legwork of getting her a referral and appointment at the next port, but she still had to pay for everything.
never GIF
I’ve used this gif more than once before… but it’s too perfect.

To the young, able-bodied and healthy individual who knows from the onset what they’re getting into, I guess it’s not so heinous. In my case, I knew cruise-shippin’ was not my life-plan. It was more like a diversion in between Figuring My Shit Out. I was only mildly into #FIRE, so the lack of retirement planning didn’t bother me that much.

But, for the long-time cruise-worker, it’s some definite bullshit: imagine working at a place for years on end, being severely underpaid and overworked (no days off, remember) while your company makes literal billions in revenue each year (on which, they almost definitely don’t pay taxes)…

Ew.

.+++.

Nobody’s perfect, right??

Eh…

Knowing all of the above, do I still think it’s worth it?

Hindsight is a beautiful thing. I think for me, where I was in my life, my financial situation, my social factors (single, no kids, no pets, no plants, and able to rent out my house), and the fact that I had the luxury of choicethen the answer is yes.

I met amazing people, went to beautiful places, and had unforgettable experiences. Plus, there was also a robust crew-welfare team that did things like plan parties, excursions, and activities for the crew;  there was, at least, the appearance of caring.

That’s not to say that the above-mentioned things sit well with me or that the ends justify the means. It’s definitely shady, and it’s definitely not a one-size-fits-all.

In the end, follow your gut. Or heart. Or conscience. I don’t know.

Just don’t follow the random Internet lady, I guess.

Hard view to beat.

Click here to read all my posts about living and working on a cruise ship!


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