Cruise ships: What the FOC?

Cruise ships: What the FOC?

Cruising  is arguably tourism’s greatest 21st century success story. But it is also a story of industry failure – to learn from and act on the decades of evidence showing  how damaging it can be for  local people in destination ports and and marine environments.  Read our report on Cruise Ship Tourism for more on this. But here we highlight an associated issue – the plight of those working on the pleasure ships that sail our seas.

Most cruise ships sail under something called a ‘Flag of Convenience’.  This means that companies choose to register their ships in a country other than the country of ownership. Common FOC nations include Liberia, Panama and the Bahamas. Flying an FOC means that ships are subject to less regulation, making it more difficult for unions, industry stakeholders and the public to hold them accountable.

The system can result in:

  • Low wages for crews
  • Inadequate living and working conditions
  • Inadequate food and clean drinking water
  • Long periods of work without proper rest
  • Tax avoidance
  • An outdated and harmful environmental impact.

Tourism Concern thinks this is unacceptable and wants to see the demise of the FOC open registry system. We want a cruise industry regulated by negotiated trade union agreements, based on respect for basic human rights and a fair wage.

The multinational nature of cruise ship crews means that the crew members often face exploitation and abuse. Seafarers can end up working 12-hour days, seven days a week for several months just to pay back crewing agents and to pay for flights to and from the ship.

Below decks on a cruise ship is a hidden world of long hours, low pay, insecurity and exploitation. Working days are commonly 10-13 hours long, seven days a week. Those who work continuously below deck, rarely see the light of day, let alone the sea.

Wages for those on a salary can be as low as £270 a month, rising to £480 a month for skilled cooks and fitters. Many domestic staff are “tip earners”, paid about £35 a month and expected to survive on the generosity of the passengers. Many seafarers, particularly those from the Philippines, will have to pay a crewing agent a fee of up to £1,000 to join the ship. For the lowest paid, this can mean it takes as much as half of a typical eight month contract to repay this expense.

Another trick from the employers is to demand a “security bond” of up to £550 from each employee, supposedly to stop desertion and cover any consequent fines. The bond can extend the working time to cover expenses to six out of the eight months on board. Discipline is also harsh and often randomly applied. Passenger complaints can mean staff are transferred to less desirable stations or can lead straight to a dismissal.

Whilst some cruise ships are seeking to comply with international conventions on employment and pollution, FOC’s simply make it much harder to ensure that this is, in fact, the case.

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