Human Resources and Labor Law on the High Seas and the best jobs on a cruise ship

In Paris we ate dinner next to a “worldwide HR” executive for a cruise line conglomerate. I had thought that for non-U.S.-flagged cruise ships the companies were free to hire workers from anywhere in the world on any terms that were mutually agreeable. It turns out that this labor market is one of the most heavily unionized and regulated. Essentially every class of worker has its own union, including the predominantly Indonesians and Filipinos who work as part of the “hotel” staff. On top of this are UN regulations that are roughly 10 years old. A company that doesn’t adhere to these, which were introduced primarily to prevent abuses in the freight shipping world, will be a pariah. Compensation, benefits, and working conditions for essentially every job on a big cruise line are negotiated with a union. There is only one set of rules that the cruise line can’t navigate, however: “We try not to hire any Americans to work on-board because of all of the legal and regulatory headaches,” she explained.

I did meet a few Americans onboard our Royal Caribbean cruise around the Baltic Sea. One was in the IT department and works 6-8 months. How many days off does he get during this period? “None. It is 7 days a week, two 5-hour shifts per day,” he replied. He shares a room (porthole on deck 2) with one other crew member. Isn’t that a tough schedule? “People from India and China can do it.”

Waiters and hotel staff also talked about working 6-8 months in a row and then having 2 months off. Senior officers, on the other hand, work 10 weeks on then have 10 weeks off. Cruise ship jobs appeal to people from at least 64 countries, the number of nationalities we had on board the Serenade of the Seas (compare to 52 nationalities for the passengers). Workers seemed generally satisfied and cheerful, e.g., when encountered during their off-duty hours in the Deck 12 gym (huge and with fantastic views of the sea).

[Note that some jobs on the ship are done by employees of contractors, e.g., shipboard photography is handled by a vendor. These folks don’t seem to be in a union.

One caveat: Cruise ship employees who are married and/or have children should be careful about choosing a home base. In states or countries that like to have a primary parent/second parent (a.k.a. “winner parent” and “loser parent”) outcome and use a “primary historical caregiver” standard for deciding which parent wins, the cruise ship job can lead to a guaranteed loss of a divorce, custody, and/or child support lawsuit. Even if the cruise ship job is abandoned after a divorce, the loss of custody will be permanent in most places (see Real World Divorce for which states set up a winner-take-all battle for the house, kids, and cash and also for which states cement a winner parent’s status permanently).

I chatted one evening with an officer who asked what I had learned on the cruise and I responded with “I’ve learned about divorce litigation in Kuwait.” (I’ll cover that in a future posting!) This officer made the cataclysmic mistake of moving from his native Civil law country to settle in the U.S. The American wife decided to sue him for divorce, custody, child support, and alimony. She automatically wins the divorce part of the lawsuit due to the fact that every U.S. state is essentially a “no-fault” or “unilateral divorce” jurisdiction. She also more or less automatically won everything else. Because he’d been away for those 10-week blocks of time there was no possibility of him being determined to be the “historical primary caregiver” and therefore entitled to be the “primary parent” going forward. So she got a house, the child, child support, and alimony. Via court order he will now be doing involuntarily what he used to do voluntarily (i.e., working for 10-week blocks, sometimes so intensively that he doesn’t get off the ship for weeks at a stretch). “I don’t mind supporting my child,” he said, “but why do I have to keep working to support an adult simply because she wasn’t working during part of the marriage?” Had he been married with children in his original homeland, he would have had a statistically smaller chance of being sued (with no alimony and limited child support, the wife would have had to get a job after divorcing him). He would have paid legal fees at a fixed percentage of assets (in his particular case the legal fees are on track to consume 100% of the couple’s savings, though not the home equity). See the section on Germany, for example. [See also the “Practical Tips” chapter, in which there is a section regarding the tendency of active duty military personnel to lose the winner-take-all battle in a U.S. family court.]

As far as I can tell, the best job on the ship seems to be working in the shop (e.g., selling Advil for 50 cents per pill). I talked to a young Chilean and he explained that the shop is always closed whenever the ship is in “territorial waters or in port.” Thus he is free to enjoy the ports in the same way that a paying passenger would. The company lets him jump onto shore excursions if they aren’t full. He doesn’t get free Internet, though, which he considers to be a good thing for productivity: “Whenever we can get Internet we are always texting instead of doing our jobs.” He said that pay is about the same as it would be if he were to work in a shop in Chile, though obviously without the free room and board as well as travel.

3 thoughts on “Human Resources and Labor Law on the High Seas and the best jobs on a cruise ship

  1. Cruise ships do hire significant number of Americans in at least one department: entertainers. I know a number of actors/singers/dancers who’ve gotten cruise ship jobs. (If you really want to make a living doing performing arts, you could do worse: it can be pretty hard to find a job singing and dancing that will actually pay rent.)

  2. Andrew, you might care to modify that “significant numbers of hired American entertainers” to mean “microphone-wielding talk show hosts”/ equivalent. The chorus line, and basically all the musicians and other crew tasked with producing the twice-daily shows, probably are from the “cheaper” workforce nations; earlier it was East Europeans, now more South Americans. Acc. to a pianist who spent something like 10 years playing the cruises predominantly in the Carribean, now retired from that (class accompanist in a ballet school); information is ~10yo. He also says, that for EU beginner dancers, cruises are usually the sole steady non-short-seasonal work available, and that’s where they hone and harden their act… if they can outlive that, they’re ready for endless cattle calls and rejections on Broadway (the larger the liner, the bigger the HR unit devoted to dealing with heartbreak etc crises among its young workforce). This is also often where dancers get discovered by casting agents etc on “working vacations.”

    BTW. asked what he was doing between shifts (usually worked the lunch hour + the 8pm to 3am dance floor/ disco), he replied “drinking cheap booze.” Being drunk and asleep in your off hours was a guarantee against being commandeered to fill in for someone taken sick or absent. Alcohol is/ continues to be/ the main intellectual agitator of his life.

    ObMovieContentAll That Jazz” by Bob Fosse (1979). “The Chorus Line” by Richard Attenborough. Unforgettable Broadway cattle call scenes in both; anxiety overflow.

  3. Take it easy on the advil, Phil.

    Nsaids are awful for you. They rot out your stomach and raise all sorts of poorly understood hell with your metabolism.

    My doc doesn’t even want me taking Tylenol because it causes elevated liver enzymes.

    In 2016 the front line treatment for chronic pain is probably venlafaxine.

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