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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, January 1, 2006

Low-paid foreign help keeps cruise liners afloat

 •  Home away from home

Florida Today

Mitchell Hurtado, a Peruvian, serves dessert at a midnight buffet aboard the Port Canaveral, Fla.-based Carnival cruise ship Fantasy.

CRAIG RUBADOUX | Gannett News Service

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In Hawai'i, NCL America’s ships Pride of America and Pride of Aloha are both U.S.-flagged and, as such, must employ U.S. workers and follow U.S. labor laws.

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Imagine leaving your spouse, children and home for 10 months a year to work for tips aboard a cruise ship.

That's the choice made by thousands of workers on ships based at Port Canaveral, Fla., and other major ports. To support families and gain hope for the future, they work 12 to 16 hours a day, seven days a week for 10 months at a stretch — some for salaries as low as $75 per month.

These low-cost workers from nearly 100 nations are a critical part in an industry that avoids U.S. tax and labor laws and reaps billions in profits every year.

Andrew Rodrigues steps over the rag-pickers and vendors on the squalid sidewalks of Mumbai, India.

"When I see these people, I feel pity, I feel sadness," says Rodrigues. "I cannot help much. But if I have any coins with me, then I just give them away."

Rodrigues, 44, knows what it's like to feel alone and depend on the generosity of strangers.

In a few weeks, he will head to Port Canaveral to work about 84 hours a week waiting tables aboard the cruise ship Carnival Fantasy with dozens of other white-jacketed waiters, all of them hustling for tips from American tourists.

He's done it for over 10 years.

Rodrigues would like to stay home in India, but he needs the work to help support an extended family of nine. He's nearing the end of a four-month break after his last stint, and has signed a six-month contract with Carnival while his private business venture — selling Herbalife nutritional supplements — takes root in Mumbai.

"By going to work for half a year, I am not able to save money," he says. "But I can live for a full year on the six months of work."


It's 2:30 p.m. at America's third-busiest port for international cruises. Most of the passengers at Port Canaveral, Fla., have made their way onto the Carnival Fantasy for a three-night cruise to the Bahamas and back.

There's no sunshine, but Margaret Morris and Andrea Cox of Atlanta defy the weather.

"We needed a girls' weekend out," says Cox, lounging on a deck chair. "You don't have to do anything but have fun."

Seaman Daniel Chandekar, more than 8,000 miles from home, is getting off the ship.

He calls Sharon Tiwari, his fiancee and a schoolteacher in Mumbai. After hearing an update on their wedding plans, he and other crew members take a shuttle back to the port.

The Fantasy's 940 workers represent 67 nationalities around the globe: Filipinos, Indonesians, Ukrainians — but few Americans. The jobs represent a chance to do what their fathers and grandfathers did: work abroad and make enough money to live a good life.

The rewards are obvious; less so are the risks in a Florida-based industry where workers enjoy few of the wage and disability regulations Americans take for granted.

"My contract is up in November, and the first thing I'll do when I get home is get married," Chandekar says. "I feel badly because (Tiwari) is doing everything. She has all the responsibility."


By nightfall, revelers are migrating toward dinner.

The waiters and cooks aren't the only ones who now move into position. Cleaners use the opportunity to drain and scrub the pool for evening use.

A string ensemble provides background music from the base of the ship's most ornate centerpiece: three-story gold spiral staircases where cameras click and flash continuously. A wedding party makes its way down the stairs. Outside, Manuel Mori, who was an electrician in Ecuador, has been changing light bulbs for a bar.

"There is no work in Ecuador," he says, explaining that he may work aboard the ship for another four or five years — just enough to save to buy a mini-market or a pharmacy in his hometown.

There are times though when the separation from his family makes him question that choice.

"I call them every week, twice," he says. "Sometimes I cry when I'm on the phone with them. Sometimes I cry when I get off."


While passengers sunbathe or shop, the Fantasy's housekeepers work the long corridors of cabins, making beds and hauling out trash and wet towels.

Dressed in simple dark uniforms, they politely say hello to those who pass them in the halls. They, too, depend on tips.

In the ship's hierarchy, these "hotel" cleaners and attendants are among the lowest-ranking seafarers. Workers from poor nations, including the Philippines and Indonesia, represent the bulk of them. Salaries are $75 to $100 per month plus tips.


As the Fantasy leaves the Bahamas for Florida, passengers dress up for the formal dinner and cocktail party with the captain.

The ship starts reminding passengers to tip the workers.

"Remember the great service you have received here and all the hard work that went into putting this meal together," someone announces over the loudspeaker. "Let them know you appreciate it."

Rodrigues' monthly base salary — like that of most waiters and housekeepers — ranges from $50 to $75 per month.

But with tips, he pulls in about $2,300 a month. From that, he must pay for his own visas, airfare, uniforms and supplies. Carnival Corp. withholds a $500 deposit as insurance that employees will complete their contracts.

Passengers' tips are the lifeblood for Rodrigues and his entire family. And it is devastating to wait on a group of people all week, only to get stiffed.

"We have brought that up to our superiors," he says. "But they tell us to go home if we don't like it."

The final day of the cruise is also its first truly sunny day, and passengers are taking advantage of the good weather.

In the galleys and quarters below, the crew is preparing for the next voyage.

"It's like prison," says Rodrigues. "The jobs are for people who have no education. You don't do this for your heart. You only do it for money."