18 Jun 2019 18:14 IST

It’s migrant labour that keeps cruise-ships afloat

Workers from several countries are responsible for keeping this engine of global commerce humming

While the world’s nationalist leaders repeatedly talk about immigrant labour in a bad light, large corporations prove, day in and day out, that their businesses would collapse without the lift that immigrant labour brings.

This is true of menial businesses such as animal farming for the production of meat and leather, vegetable and fruit picking, and the maintenance of hotel rooms. The construction of new homes, fixing roofs, maintaining lawns and gardens, laying brick, roadwork, and many such jobs that are essential to a modern economy are extremely dependent upon immigrant labour.

A little-known industry that is completely reliant on immigrant labour is the worldwide cruise shipping sector. Practically, every job on a modern cruise ship is performed by immigrants. Cooks, room attendants, waiters, bartenders, the people who keep the ship clean, security personnel, even technical staff such as mechanics and electricians, are all drawn from countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, and Thailand.

Daily drudgery

The work is so hard that most native-born populations in the West would not even consider applying for such jobs. The labourers are hired on contracts that are typically eight months long, with four months back at home. During their eight months at sea, they repeatedly perform the same jobs, week after week on sailing after sailing, on 11-hour shifts for seven days a week. The work is tedious, especially because they always have to wear a smile to keep guests happy. As the face of the cruise line, every cruise ship employee is the first point of contact for a cruise company’s guests.

The compensation is not high, about $1200 a month, but is remarkably high compared to what locals back in their home countries make for similar work. In fact, the money is often better than the compensation of elite professionals in their home countries, including doctors and lawyers, when you consider expenses, taxes and additional income. Cruise employees don’t pay for food or for their limited accommodations for the eight months they’re at sea.

The benefits

Consider tips. Two room attendants take care of approximately 40 cabins each week. The work is gruelling and involves rigorous housekeeping duties of five-star hotel quality, right down to the angle of the crease of a bedsheet on a made bed. Most guests tip these low-waged employees at least $10 per room per day. For a 7-day cruise, tips alone could total $2,800 for both attendants, or about $1,400 per person. The monthly tip income could reach $5,600, over and above their official compensation of $1,200. Most of this income is never reported to tax authorities.

Tips at bars and casinos are also sizeable. The workers who lose out on tip income are the backroom employees — such as those who wash sheets and towels — who do not come in contact with the ship’s guests. It is not clear if front-line staff share tip income with their backroom colleagues.

There are other attractions too. The biggest attraction is that these young workers get a chance to see the world that they otherwise could not even dream of. Major cruise lines’ destinations include exotic places such as Alaska, Hawaii, the western Pacific, the Caribbean, Mexico, Northern and southern Europe, the Mediterranean, the various islands of South-East Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan.

A typical employee would have visited all of these locations multiple times in a career lasting fewer than four years, the average length of employment for such migrant employees. Burnout is high after four to six years because of long stints away from home and their desire to settle down with all their savings intact. The savings can be so sizable that they could potentially fund a service business in their hometown and a secure way of life, for life.

Trip to Alaska

On our cruise trip to Alaska last week, my family and I left the port of Seattle on a Sunday at 4 pm. We cruised the northern Pacific for nearly 48 hours before arriving at one of the most scenic state capitals of the world, Juneau. Reachable only by ship or air, this jewel is an artist’s ultimate depiction of what a city should be. Tall mountains on either side of a narrow shipping channel are full of coniferous and birch trees. Seaplanes and boats share space on the channel. The Mendenhall Glacier is located just 14 miles away, an impressive body of ice which melts into a gushing river at Nugget Falls, which feeds Mendenhall lake, which is the source of the Mendenhall River.


From Juneau, we cruised to the Hubbard glacier, one of the largest Piedmont glaciers, which occur when steep valley glaciers spill into relatively flat plains, where they spread out into bulb-like lobes. We embarked on land again only the following day, at a beautiful village called Sitka, known for its Totem poles. We visited one other Alaskan port called Ketchikan before returning to Victoria, in Canada, and then back to Seattle the following Sunday at 7 am.


The cruise industry performs a valuable service by taking us to places which we would otherwise probably never see. We’re offered 5-star luxury from origin to destination. Unlimited food is available from 6 am to 11 pm. There are nightly entertainment shows or you could relax on the observation terrace with a book. For the real active individual, a fully equipped gym and on-site yoga classes take care of daily exercise routines. There are swimming pools, jacuzzis, ping-pong tournaments, salons, and trivia contests. All the while, you are entertained to world-class scenery just by looking out of the ship.

But little is said about the men and women at sea — the immigrant workforce — who make all this happen. They toil hard, bringing fat profits to their employers and unforgettable experiences to their guests, always wearing a smile, and leaving problems of boredom, fatigue, and homesickness behind. They are truly the unsung heroes who keep one of the many wheels of global commerce humming like a well-oiled machine.