For passengers enjoying a luxury cruise, life below deck is a hidden world. They may be vaguely aware of the girl who makes up their room, or the teams of staff sweating in the galley to serve up mountains of the finest food, but few will ever know what goes on deep in the belly of the ship. Here, former crew member JAMES NICHOLAS recounts how he first encountered the darkness below the waterline.
WHAT do you picture when you think of a cruise ship? The chances are, it’s things like fine food, sunset cocktails on the deck and visits to exotic ports.
However, ask any Filipino who has worked onboard the same question, and you’ll get a very different answer.
I worked on cruise ships for three years. As a western member of the crew, I was in the relatively privileged position to see both the glamour of the passenger lounges and also what went on behind the water-tight doors of the lower decks.
Life down there is gruelling, a “groundhog day” of unbroken servitude — 10 hours a day, seven days a week for nine months at a time.
For me, the job was a choice — an opportunity to escape my everyday life for a while, to find myself and to see something of the world. But for most Filipinos, it’s a hard-headed decision, a rare opportunity to support their far distant families.
While the money is good (by Filipino standards), the living conditions are not. Basic accommodation and bland food is provided, but the cruise companies do nothing to keep the hard-working crew entertained, and sane.
While the western crew members often take the opportunity to explore the various ports the ship docks at, for Indian and Filipino workers this is simply unaffordable — a waste of the cash they are obliged to send home.
Cruise companies deliberately target countries where poverty is rife, and depend on this pool of low-wage staff, usually working unseen, below decks, to provide the levels of luxury their customers expect.
There is a huge divide in culture on board and prejudice is rife. The level of interaction between nautical officers and passenger services crew is night and day, or (often literally) black and white.
Within these divides are further subdivisions, creating a rigid hierarchy — you soon learn your place on the totem pole. Junior staff are routinely belittled, degraded and over-worked by older colleagues. In their view, years of service give them the right to discriminate against crew still finding their sea legs.
For the workers below decks, the ship becomes a floating city. Many basic skills and services can be shared, just like in any community. This economy doesn’t operate on cash, but rather by barter system, a service for a service.
Other necessities can be purchased, but cash is not common. Staff have onboard accounts, which are controlled by their employers. Money in, money charged, money paid — just numbers on a monthly invoice, which workers line up once a month to sign off.
Prostitution is rife
Being in a nine-month routine without any type of stimulation obviously creates certain tensions. Inevitably, there will be opportunistic people who recognise this, and identify a route to personal gain. The commodity they have to offer? An endless supply of young Filipinas.
Sailors have always been linked with prostitution. Across the world, docks are inevitably associated with brothels and sex for sale. But it’s also rife onboard.
Just like any enterprise, there has to be management involved to organise and maintain productivity. Some people might call them “pimps”.
I remained unaware of this below-deck industry until two of the “managers” — both Filipino chefs — had some sort of corporate difference of opinion.
The disagreement came to light when one of them was found stabbed to death and hidden among the meat supplies in a walk-in fridge.
Just like in any city there are places it’s often better to avoid, and on the high seas that’s deep in the belly of the ship.
The lower you go, the less you can tell if its day or night. The luxurious surroundings of the passenger decks give way to hard steel and claustrophobic corridors.
The warning signs plastered on every wall only tell half the story.