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Source: The Guardian
By Ian Jack
Every summer throughout the 1950s, the most beautiful ship I have ever seen sailed up the Firth of Forth to anchor not far from our house. The Caronia had a hull painted in three shades of green, and a funnel in the Cunard line livery of rich red and black; the effect was of a private yacht swollen to a liner’s size. Its visit was brief. It would arrive at dawn and launches would later ferry American passengers to the pier where buses took them on a quick trip to Edinburgh. Late in the same long July day, the ship would put out smoke as a prelude to leaving. You could watch until its lights vanished into the thickening dusk of the North Sea, and then the next day walk along the sands to inspect its legacy: the dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of half-eaten grapefruits that had floated ashore from its rubbish chute, some still complete with glacé cherries impaled on cocktail sticks. This suggested a luxurious life on board and inspired our idea that Americans, especially those who took cruises, must be the most pampered people in the world.
The cruise then seemed an elevated form of tourism. The primary purpose of passenger ships was still to take the traveller from Southampton to Cape Town and New York, Tilbury to Bombay and Sydney. Sea travel as an end in itself wasn’t new – in the interwar recessions, companies had tarted up their empty liners and sent them cruising to make money – but cruising as an industry had yet to be invented. Postwar liners such as the Caronia had been built to do both, to cross the stormy Atlantic in winter and to cruise from New York to the Mediterranean in summer, which meant their design had a sturdy elegance.
No liner looks like that now; “floating hotel” is the favoured description for the modern liner, which can carry up to five or six times the Caronia’s 900 passengers. Eight or nine of these are launched every year to meet a rising demand for cruising in Asia and Europe, and to renew the fleet that serves the North American market. Last year, the cruise industry reported global revenues of nearly $30bn (£18bn), generated by 19m customers. Taking a cruise is no longer a mark of wealth or refinement.
There is worse. Cruises have recently become celebrated for various physical and moral hazards. Lives are put at risk by careless navigation on the bridge and overeating in the saloon (the average cruise passenger is reported to put on a pound a day). In the Mediterranean, the Costa Concordia ploughs through a flat sea into a well-charted reef; in the Pacific, the Star Princess somehow ignores distress signals from a fishing boat whose crew is dying of hunger and thirst. But the moral question loomed largest when the Guardian disclosed what cruise ship crews get paid this week. On P&O ships sailing from Southampton, a junior waiter can earn as little as 75p an hour, or £250 a month. Cash tips from passengers at the trip’s end have in the past handsomely supplemented the wages of waiters and cabin stewards, but generosity has shrivelled with economic decline. P&O has devised a new system of “auto gratuities” that are added to passengers’ bills like a service charge, but depend on the customer’s approval rating of the service they’ve received before it can be paid to the worker. All being well, the waiter gets another £150 a month as “performance bonus”, taking his or her pay to about £5,000 a year. Most crew are from India and the Philippines.
The Guardian’s report has caused astonishment and reproach. According to the TUC’s general secretary, Brendan Barber, holidaymakers would be “horrified to learn that some of the seafarers on their cruise ships are paid so little. It’s high time the disgraceful practice of allowing the shipping industry to pay poverty wages to workers who don’t live in the UK was stopped. Exploitative rates of pay for those working on British ships have no place in a modern society.”
The key word is “British”; wage rates at five-star hotels in, say, Goa are outside the argument, though P&O would say they shouldn’t be. How British is P&O, the old Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company? Like Cunard, it was once central to British identity: the imperial line that sailed to the east with mail for Indian viceroys and bankers for Hong Kong; strong Scottish connections – founded by a Shetlander and later run by an Arbroath man, Lord Inchcape, a powerful figure in commerce; ships with white hulls and buff funnels, built in Britain (where else?).
And now? Like Cunard, P&O is part of the Carnival group, the world’s largest cruise ship operator and the ultimate owners of a fleet that includes the ill-fated Costa Concordia and Star Princess. The British lines, with their ancient establishment dates, add a Fortnum’s appeal to the list. True, they are owned by a UK company, Carnival plc, but their ships were built in Germany, France and Italy, their crews recruited in Mumbai and Manila, and since last year, their port of registration has been Hamilton, Bermuda. As with a premier league football club, it becomes hard to know what local or “British” element remains, other than the shared historical sense of the customers who pay to come aboard.
One of the FAQs on the P&O website is: “Why are the ships registered in Bermuda?” To which P&O replies that the registry has been chosen “so that we can offer our passengers a ‘weddings at sea package’, a service that is not possible on ships registered in the UK”. It has nothing to do, then, with the potential for litigation opened up by the recent Equality Act that might affect the wage bills of ships with large foreign crews?
None of this is new. Ship owners haven’t been made more rapacious by globalisation; as an industry, shipping was “globalised” long before anyone invented the word. It picked up labour wherever it was willing, skillful and cheap. For British companies, this tended to be the Indian subcontinent, where recruiting offices fed P&O and other lines with thousands of stokers, deckhands and cooks. Their low wages kept shipping costs down and London share prices up, and prefigured the modern phenomenon of outsourcing to faraway call centres. At least 6,000 died at sea in the second world war. Others quit their ships to settle in London: the founders of what became the capital’s Bangladeshi community. Many others went home from the sea to build good houses with the money they’d saved.
No more viceroys, no more tea in P&O packing cases out of Kolkata, no more jute for Dundee. Instead, an Indian waiter on a German-built ship registered in Bermuda serves lunch to a retired couple from Surrey: this is where an old imperial connection most vividly exists.