Tuesday, August 25, 2009

From Erica: on cruising

This is going to be a bit of a long post, and with very little in the way of conclusions. Maybe it'd be better to call it a post of questions...

As of yesterday afternoon, my partner and I returned from a 12-day cruise in the Baltic Sea. This is the second time in my life that I've taken a cruise, the first being a 7-day voyage in the Alaska area last year, and the experience has left me with a lot of conflicted opinions.

To start, I'll list the bonuses of cruising. Since I was little, my family's always taken its trips in a self-guided manner; we've rented our cars, chosen our own sightseeing, muddled our way through local customs, languages, and transportation systems to do so. Mostly we've been successful. However, it also means a lot of logistics and expenses; in Alaska, for example, many of the places we traveled to are only connected to each other via airplane. On a cruise, this hassle is taken care of. You go to bed one night, and wake up the next morning in a new place. The company has put together some tour packages if you're interested, and they always give you information about local languages, customs (especially manners!), and tips on how to get around. Cruises, at least the ones I've been on, also hold lectures and films that educate their passengers about the areas they're visiting. Also, the food is phenomenal.

The conflicts come in readily, however, and from a lot of different fronts. Environmentally, cruising is horrific. While companies have been making attempts to rectify this in recent years, the fact remains that ships burn ridiculous quantities of fuel to travel and to house their guests in the lap of luxury. Food, too, is a concern, since ships tend to carry and serve excessive amounts of it. Moral concerns about tourism's exploitative potential are raised too, depending on where the ship is docking and what the guests are expecting of the ports of call.

The biggest concern I've had on these cruises, however, is the confusing, potentially exploitative, relationships between cruise companies and their employees, both on an individual and an international level. See, on the ships I've been on, there have been two classes of employees- staff and officers- and a shockingly blatant racial division between the two. Most, if not all, of the officers on our ships were White; most, if not all, of the staff crew (waitstaff, cooks, wine stewards, stateroom cleaners) were either Filipino or Indonesian. To top it off, especially on the Alaska cruise, most of the passengers were White. For me, these were the questions I found most problematic: why are so many of the people doing the lower-paid "grunge" work from economically and racially disadvantaged areas? What are the working conditions that are shared among crew members that can be troublesome? And finally, what to make of this?

So...why are so many of the people doing the staff jobs from countries that are subjected to significant amounts of racism and economic deprivation from the broader international community? The first answer I heard from a crew member was that cruise companies pay significantly better wages than jobs in their local communities; economically, it makes sense to take a job cruising the world and getting paid comparatively well for it. The second answer I got made even better sense, and explained the discrepancies with greater detail. The particular company my family sailed with has schools set up in Indonesia and the Philippines, and these schools train their students to do specific jobs on cruise ships. As a result, not only does the entirety of the ship's crew come directly from these schools, but particular countries have higher representation in particular areas of staffing; the Indonesian school, for example, turns out more bartenders than the Filipino school (if I knew more about it, I'm sure there'd be something to say about hierarchies of countries- is bartending a "better" job than cooking, for example- but here my privileged ignorance slows me down). Similarly, many of the White officers that I talked to- who were from all over Europe and Australia- were school-picked as well, although not from the company's own programs. Instead, they tended to be students in hotel management or hospitality programs, or graduates of the same. This makes me ask a few questions yet again- are there no hospitality/hotel management programs in Indonesia or the Philippines? Does the cruise company not offer the same schools in Europe that it offers in the Pacific? What are the costs associated with the schools, especially the company-owned ones, and does that affect a person's contracts with the company?

This leads into the second question, which turns on what working conditions are like. Most of the crew- definitely the dining and stateroom staff- worked very long days, every day of the cruise. I got a lot of information about it from our server at dinner, Pras, who we would see sometimes when heading out to our ports of call. According to Pras, staff (I don't know about officers) sign contracts for a given period of time. They work for eleven months and then get four months off. When in ports of call, sometimes they get breaks- often, we would see him as he headed out to grab a moment of scenery before taking a nap- but this isn't guaranteed by the day, and is usually only three hours. Most workdays go from 5 AM to anywhere from 10 PM to midnight, depending on the events that the company's scheduled for the evening. From my observations, many of the officers work slightly fewer, and some of the other staff- White staff who ran things like the gym or the children's centre- would work their primary jobs and then have other duties to take care of too. Since a cruise ship is basically a large, floating hotel with a limited staff pool, I'm not surprised that everyone's days are longer and vacation days are limited. By the same token, however, I have to wonder if there are discrepancies- and what those discrepancies are- between the working hours of the officers and the working hours of the staff. Every night, for example, most events would be over by around 11 PM, meaning that many staff (and the officers) could go to bed. Every night, however, a midnight snack was served for those who wanted it- meaning that the cooking staff had to stay up extra-late to prepare the food (and yes, it was food that required preparation). Then again, since I sailed as a passenger and wasn't a crew member, I have no idea what goes on behind the scenes. It's entirely possible that more staff were rotated around for midnight snack duty than I realized (although the same man who gave me ice cream at midnight would ask if I wanted eggs for breakfast the next morning, every time I went), or that less preparation was required than I realized.

The final set of questions, not to be answered by me, comes out of all of this. What do we do with it? If I worked as a staff member on a ship, my knowledge would be more complete. I'd know more about the schools and about the company, and have a much better knowledge of how the ship's staff are organized for work days. Is there pay that compensates for the excessively long hours? Do crew members get phenomenal benefits? Our wine steward told us that he has two young sons, who he only gets to see on his vacations every 11 months. When my entire family expressed shock and dismay, he waved our concerns away by saying that, in families, everyone must make sacrifices. He misses seeing his sons grow up in exchange for the ability to support them. Culturally, that's not an unfamiliar mindset- sacrifice and providing for one's family are strong beliefs in the United States- but I have to wonder what American dads would say if faced with the same situation. How much of our steward's choice was influenced by a lack of other options? Or did he have other options that would have provided well enough, but he wanted this one more? Were the full range of crew positions open to him- were the training programs for them available- or was he limited by the school that the company made available to his area? Or, more troublesome still, are there country-of-origin requirements for the higher-paid crew positions? More likely, I'd imagine, the selection of where to put the company's schools and their specializations become the de facto country-of-origin requirements for the crew.

The further questions that I'm struggling to articulate reach in a much broader direction, and have no good answers. One of them, I suppose, is even if it's ethical to take a cruise, given the racial politics that the company has created (ignoring for a moment all the other problems a cruise raises). On one hand, given the above concerns about exploitation and racism, it seems like the answer is no; on the other hand, given the opportunities staffing a cruise can raise for many of the crew, it might not be perceived as exploitative at all. And while the cruise company has come up with a mediocre solution to a troublesome problem- global economic disparities- by offering citizens of disadvantaged countries the opportunity to earn decent wages and see the world, there must be other solutions as well (starting with the establishment of a new world economic order, but that's a post for a different day) that don't rely on the potential for (and/or the existence of) exploitation of the crew.

At the same time, again, I want to know how much my arguments are needed or wanted. Are my questions and concerns a form of "speaking for" the crew? Am I seeing racial divisions and automatically assuming that exploitation must be occurring? Or, more likely, if there are differences in treatment or unfair situations being set up, is my voice helpful? Am I simply being a patronizing passenger who attempts to alleviate her guilt at taking a cruise by looking for some way to be socially conscious regardless? In my mind, it's important not to assume that racial differences in hiring patterns are coincidental or non-problematic; even if nothing wrong is happening, it's better to be safe and check. But I've also learned the hard way that guilt can be a powerful motivator, even if you don't realize it, and the truth is that taking a cruise was both enjoyable and ethically uncomfortable. I believe I'd rather double-check than second-guess myself and remain silent. But it's all so bothersome.

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