Workers' rights

The cruise industry requires a high amount of human labour. It is estimated that 2500 employees are needed for a cruise with 6500 passengers. Cruises involve a wide range of risks to workers' rights. Cruise-specific features such as the all-inclusive offer and not being located in a specific country exacerbate the situation for staff. 

Working on a cruise ship often entails shifts of more than 12 hours a day, working 7 days a week for several months without a break, and inadequate resting periods. Overtime is often not compensated. Most staff work on temporary contracts, which do not include holidays. Workers often have a several months (unpaid) break between two contracts.

Cruise ship staff often receive very low salaries. The majority of cruise staff work in hospitality and restaurant service, where salaries are particularly low, sometimes as low as one euro per hour. Cruise companies try to justify the low wages, citing the high additional tips staff normally receive. With this system however, staff bear major risks. If the cruise is not fully booked or if customers are less generous, projected salaries may decline considerably.

Cruise ship staff often live in small cabins shared by several people, with a bunk bed as their only private space. Cabins are located in the part of the ship that is not sellable to customers, below the water line and without windows.

Cruise ships often subcontract recruiting to specialized agencies, handing over the direct responsibility for their staff and thereby paving the way for exploitation (see also risk card on Cruise and Modern slavery). This outsourcing makes it difficult for employees to file complaints or appeal in case of labour rights violations or other grievances. In recent years, a high percentage of cruise staff have been recruited in South East Asian countries, as well as from Latin America, the Caribbean, and Eastern Europe. Working on a cruise for these employees often means earning a multiple of what they would earn in similar positions in their home countries. However, employees can’t easily quit their jobs as they often have to support their families back home.

The Maritime Labour Convention (MLC), an international agreement of the International Labour Organization (ILO), defines minimum standards such as a working time limit of 14 hours per day and 72 hours per week as well as size and comfort of staff accommodation. However, as cruise ships often sail under the flags of countries with lower labour standards and the responsibility to investigate their violation lies with the authorities in the country where the ship is registered, it is very difficult for employees to access grievance mechanisms.

Cruise workers are often not allowed to be part of labour unions.

"Perfect Filipino workers"
Working conditions: Video
Working conditions: Articles
Interview with ITF
Job segmentation by gender and race
"Perfect Filipino workers"

About 400,000 Filipinos work on board ocean-going vessels including bulk carriers, cargo, tankers, and passenger vessels which are mainly cruise ships. They do not only represent the biggest national group in the industry, they also illustrate the major labour rights issues the cruise industry currently faces (see link below).

Working conditions: Video
Promise vs. reality in the cruise industry. Cruise ship employees work over 70 hours a week, with no rest days or paid vacations. If they suffer any mishaps, they are not protected under the United States justice system. Carolina is one of many employees who finds a different reality on board to that which has been promised.
Working conditions: Articles

The dark sides of the cruise industry

“Today, as reflected in records disclosed in discovery in several court cases, the typical worker on a cruise ship has a mandatory 77-hour work week, can work for 10 to 12 months without a day off, and can earn as little as $450 per month.”

Employees face several problems. For instance, the regulations that protect US crew members come out of the Jones Act, a federal law approved in 1920 based on laws that protected railroad workers at the time. Cruise companies argue that no other law can be applied to ships’ crews because foreign-flagged ships are not subject to U.S. regulation. However, most crewmembers come from Southeast Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean or Eastern Europe. For the past decade, no crewmember has been able to file a complaint before U.S. courts for violations of the Jones Act, because of a legal ruling and clauses in their contracts. Complaints are usually settled by private arbitrators who are paid by cruise companies and based outside the United States.

The articles linked below describe the difficult and stressful working conditions on cruise ships. 

Interview with ITF

According to Fabrizio Barcellona from the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF), the growth of the cruise ship industry should be used to get better working conditions for employees.

Job segmentation by gender and race

Job segmentation by gender and race 

Another concrete example of segregation by ethnicity, race and gender is found in cruises. With men applying for more physical exertion tasks and women seeking customer-service-oriented jobs, an inequality before and during staff selection processes is naturalised. However, the hierarchy in the organisation of work responds to criteria that normalise discrimination based on staff origin. For example, workers in the United States and Western Europe hold managerial positions; while workers of the same nationalities and, in fewer cases, Eastern Europe, are in positions such as receptionists, guest relations, casinos, entertainers and room service managers. Likewise, jobs in restaurants and cabin work are developed by men from Latin America, Southeast Asia and, to a lesser extent, women from Southeast Asia. This hierarchical position tends to feminise men from Southeast Asia, making comparisons with men in the Global North, considered ‘manlier’. In the same way, it is estimated that women working on cruises must have certain physical attributes considered attractive, an innate ability for care and service, extreme attention to detail, and skills to entertain guests.

Taking action 300x190

Take action

Policy and process

  • Integrate clauses on working conditions in contracts / Supplier Code of Conduct with cruise providers.

Supplier assessment

  • Assess the working conditions of staff employed on cruises through second- and third-party audits.

Training and capacity building

  • Train procurement staff on the issue of working conditions on cruises and how they can address it when interacting with suppliers.

Find more information on potential measures to take on the "take action" site. 

Learn more

Find more information in the Resource Centre.