The industry's argument that employees make more money on their ships than their home country doesn't justify the treatment, but NCL's Sheehan points to one of the core issues in the cruise labor debate: the price consumers pay.
Oliver Smith finds the cruise industry defensive after a recent Channel 4 ‘Dispatches’ documentary.
The chief executive of a leading European cruise line has criticised the producers of a recent Channel 4 documentary that sought to highlight the tough working conditions endured by staff on board cruise ships.
The Dispatches programme, which was broadcast earlier this month, detailed the working conditions on board the cruise ship Celebrity Eclipse, operated by Celebrity Cruises. It revealed that many of the ship’s staff receive less than half the UK national minimum wage, with some of the lowest-paid workers earning just $600 (£375) per month, the equivalent of around £1.30 an hour, and received no gratuities.
Members of staff claimed they were required to work seven days a week for months on end without rest days, while others alleged that they were forced to pay expensive fees to recruitment agencies to obtain their jobs. The programme also featured experts who accused some cruise lines of flying a “flag of convenience” by registering their ships in countries where employment laws are less stringent.
Kevin Sheehan, the chief executive of Norwegian Cruise Lines (NCL), who once appeared in an episode of the US reality series Undercover Boss, posing as an ordinary member of staff, said the experience had given him insight into life “in the trenches”, as he described it. He claimed his staff were happy.
“Although I’ve not watched the [Channel 4] programme, [its] conclusions are unfair,” he said. “We have an incredible number of people, from many countries around the world, who are desperate to work on board our ships because they can earn a lot more than they can at home. You should ask them how they feel. They will tell you the money they earn with us can change their lives, enable them to send their children to college and offer unlimited opportunities they would otherwise not have.”
Celebrity Cruises’ American parent company, Royal Caribbean International, is incorporated in Liberia, while the vessel Celebrity Eclipse is registered in Malta, which means that neither British nor US employment laws apply.
All but one of NCL’s ships are registered in the Bahamas; Carnival and MSC register theirs in Panama; Oceania Cruises in the Marshall Islands, and P&O Cruises in Bermuda.
Cruise lines deny this is done to avoid Western labour laws. Mr Sheehan said the practice was a legacy he inherited at NCL, and claimed it provided greater “legal flexibility” when arranging itineraries and launching new ships. P&O Cruises and Cunard — which last year re-registered Queen Mary 2 in Bermuda — say it is done to allow them to offer “lucrative” weddings at sea — ceremonies which are not recognised under British law.
Celebrity Cruises plans to investigate the allegations that recruitment agencies had imposed fees on potential employees. A spokesman said that the Channel 4 programme had been “biased and unbalanced”. He added that the cruise line was “committed to our employees, both shipboard and shoreside”, adding that it operated “within the letter of the law”.
Telegraph Travel spoke to Mr Sheehan following his appearance at the Abta Travel Convention in Antalya, Turkey, which concluded yesterday.
He was also critical of the recent imposition of new environmental regulations which limit the sulphur emissions ships are permitted to produce when visiting certain regions, such as the Baltic and North America.
The new rules came into force this year, and more stringent limits will come into effect in 2015. Mr Sheehan suggested they would lead to an increase in the cost of cruising holidays, and could result in cruise lines choosing to visit fewer ports.
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