The contrast couldn’t be greater — while cruise ship passengers enjoy ocean views from their cabins, splash around in the pool or fill their plates at the buffet for the umpteenth time, things are very different for those working behind the scenes.

An army of hard-working crew members ensures that vacationers going on cruises have everything they need. Many staff members put up with seemingly endless shifts, are separated from their families for months at a time, and share cramped cabins.

“The contrast between the glamorous image painted by the industry and the reality of workers on board is truly striking,” says Maya Schwiegershausen-Güth of the Aviation & Maritime Industry Section of the Verdi trade union.

One of the main Problems for workers on board, she says, is compliance with working hours. Although working hours have been regulated internationally since 2006 by the Maritime Labor Convention, they are consistently violated.

A side view of the MSC Virtuosa cruise ship in Hamburg.Labor rights are consistently disrespected in the cruise ship industry, say expertsImage: Michael Bihlmayer/CHROMORANGE/picture alliance

A seven day work week

Angela Teberga, a professor of tourism at the University of Palmas in Brazil confirms such frequent labor rights violations. In her doctoral thesis, she examined working conditions on cruise ships and paid particular attention to working hours and the workload, which are the most frequent causes of complaint among crew members.

Although the eight-hour day and six-day week generally apply to work done at sea officially, the reality is often different, she says. Working up to 14 hours a day, seven days a week is the rule rather than the exception. This is all the more true the lower the position of the respective employee in the labor hierarchy on board.

In 2019, there were 554,000 jobs in the industry, according to the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA). About €21.4 billion ($23,322 billion) were paid in salaries.

Cruise ship crews are usually very international: Up to 80 countries of origin are represented on board many ships, according to the association. A particularly large number of employees come from developing countries in Asia and South America. People from the Philippines account for almost 30% of all employees in the global shipping industry.

A staff member puts a lime on a cocktail.Since 2019, it has become increasingly difficult to find staff, and ships have had to become more attractive employersImage: Andrea Warnecke/dpa/picture alliance

Νο German ships

“For many, a job on a cruise ship is an opportunity to make a small fortune,” says Alexis Papathanassis, professor of tourism and cruise management at Bremerhaven University of Applied Sciences, who does academic work on the subject. Although salaries are low by European standards, they are significantly higher than in the home countries of these crew members. That’s why they put up with the “very, very harsh working conditions,” he says.

The fact that salaries often do not meet the standards of regulations set out by countries in the European Union is due to the fact that many cruise ships are registered in countries where other rules apply, such as in the Bahamas or Panama. There are actually no ships that sail under the German flag, for example.

The Aida fleet of cruise ships popular in Germany, for example, is registered in Italy. TUI Cruises is registered in Malta. As a result, the minimum wage in Germany doesn’t have to be paid. It also allows cruise ship companies to take advantage of more favorable tax conditions in such countries. In this way, it is possible to reduce personnel costs by as much as half, according to tourism professor Angela Teberga.

The workload increases

Cruise ship companies are also aiming to put ever-larger ships into operation. Professor Teberga has found that as years pass, the ratio of passengers to crew members has been increasingly changing to the disadvantage of employees.

Between 2001 and 2020, the average passenger capacity of cruise ships increased by 60%, but the number of crew members only increased by 44%. As a result, crew members had to take on greater workloads.

Helge Grammerstorf, National Director of CLIA-Germany, disputes the fact that internationally valid working time regulations are regularly disrespected on cruise ships. “A lot has changed in the relationship in recent years,” he says. “The policy of shipping companies is that permitted working hours should not be exceeded.” That is now handled very restrictively, he adds. Systems that log the number of hours an employee works also make tracking working hours transparent, he adds. “As in any service sector, we also depend on motivated employees,” says Grammerstorf. “And they are treated accordingly.”

A ship from the company Aida sailing next to Dubai. Many cruise ships popular in Germany are registered in countries with lower minimum wages and better tax conditionsImage: Wiktor Dabkowski/picture alliance

Shortage of skilled workers

However, there is still a lot of room for improvement here, cruise ship expert Alexis Papathanassis says. As in many other sectors, especially tourism and hospitality, there was an acute shortage of skilled workers due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Companies are having a hard time finding enough qualified on-board personnel. “The industry is therefore forced to offer more attractive working conditions and upgrade its image as an employer,” he says. In any case, passengers will continue to have sea views, pool access and never-ending buffets, and staff will be needed to make these luxuries a reality.

This article was originally published in German.