Sunday, 20 May 2012 11:05

Pressures

Now let's look in more detail at some of the specific pressures felt by cruise ship crew, based on the observations of experienced welfare workers in the sector.

Numbers

When large numbers of people live in a confined space, tensions are guaranteed. Individuals are more vulnerable to bullying which is easier to conceal. Close friendships and romantic relationships can arise but, subject to the high pressured working environment, these are often unstable or casual in nature. This can result in emotional distress, especially given the impossibility of getting away and finding new friends.

"It can be like showbiz, lots of kissing and hugging and no real substance."

Discipline

A clear hierarchy, with the master and senior officers at the top, is a universal feature of life at sea. However, the numbers onboard cruise ships mean that hierarchy, and discipline, are rigidly enforced. Crew members may feel reluctant to ask for help with problems. One welfare worker observed: 'A waiter never speaks to an officer'. The website 'Cruise Ship Jobs' advises those considering a career onboard to ask themselves the following question:

"Can I deal with a strict hierarchy, often military-like, in which I have to follow orders, without questioning them?"

Divisions

However, the question of hierarchy is not as simple as it seems. Observers note that crews tend to divide along national or departmental lines. Such groupings can be positive, creating a sense of community and teamwork. Conversely, the strength of numbers can give rise to a 'shadow hierarchy' in which certain groups dominate. This can lead to resentment and accusations of favouritism by those who feel excluded. In extreme cases, discipline and stability can be seriously undermined.

"On a cargo ship, the First Officer is "God's right hand". On a cruise ship, a waiter who belongs to the dominant social group might well challenge the authority of the First Officer."

Health

Cruise ships are required to carry qualified medical personnel, including a doctor. If crew members are unwell, they have a right to medical care free of charge. The regulations are clear: the reality is complicated. There may be fear that diagnosis of a medical condition will lead to the termination of a contract. Strict discipline onboard can mean that a crew member complaining of health problems receives little sympathy. Some feel that the doctors are only there for the passengers.

"If a seafarer needed medical attention, it would be almost impossible to talk to a doctor onboard. The ship's doctor is a senior officer."

Dismissal

Many cruise lines operate a system of three warnings after which a seafarer is sent home. Welfare workers often hear complaints of 'unfair' warnings but the onboard ethos favours discipline rather than mediation. Some cruise lines require crew members to pay a deposit on joining the ship, between US$300 and US$500, which pays for repatriation when a contract is terminated early. In some countries, seafarers are escorted to the airport under guard to ensure that they leave.

"Seafarers join cruise ships to work hard and make money. They don't complain because they want a return schedule."

Difficulties experienced by women

While increasing numbers of women now work in cargo shipping, the sector is still largely male. This affects the perception of seafarers generally and the provision of welfare services for them. On cruise ships, women often represent over 50% of the crew, a relatively new phenomenon. Welfare workers observe a need for services specifically for women, not only medical care and psychological support, but also practical advice on coping with the physical demands of life onboard.

"We are certain that women cruise ship workers need a service enabling them to talk to women doctors or counsellors, especially on matters of sexual health."

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