It’s often said that money makes the world go round. For employees on cruise ships, this could not be more true. Top level management such as the captain and executives are full-time staff, but those on the bottom rung such as line cooks and waiters are contract staff whose salary vary depending on the cruise line they work for and the position they are at.
For crew – those at the bottom of the hierarchy – gratuities are a lifeline. Many cruise lines officially pay their crew very low salary as it is expected that they make this up on tips from passengers.
Author of Cruise Confidential (2008), Brian David Bruns chronicled his life as a crew member in the kitchens of a Carnival cruise line, where he suggested he was paid US$60 a month (excluding tips), with his food, accommodation and two crew parties taken care of. Times may have changed and realities on different cruise companies are different, but it remains that gratuities make up a significant share of compensation for cruise ship crew.
The US has had a longstanding unspoken rule for tipping. Even on land, tips are given freely and only withheld in case of very bad service. Establishments have come to understand this practice and therefore offer lower salaries to staff that are made up by these gratuities.
As a mixed guest list for different countries has surfaced on cruise lines – particularly those following US law, companies have started incorporating what is called ‘auto-gratuity’. This is a mandatory tip added to the bill without the passenger having determined the amount or even being asked for it.
Reports suggest that auto-gratuity on board cruise lines today can range from US$80 to more than US$100 per person for a week-long cruise. Passengers in suites can pay up to US$7 extra per day, while bars and spas add about 15 per cent extra to their bills.
Earlier, passengers would tip crew in cash at the end of the cruise. However, this system did not allow for all crew members to receive a fair share as many passengers did not come into contact with all the people who might have made their vacation pleasant.
Auto-gratuities allows the cruise line to pool the rewards and share them among more positions. For service staff such as waiters, this becomes a better prospect. If their end pay – from tipping – depended on the number of tables they were assigned to as would be the case earlier, the amount of money they took home at the end of the contract would be widely inconsistent.
For example, if a waiter was assigned to look after 18 tables, he or she would receive much less by way of tipping than someone assigned to 24 tables. Auto-gratuities also covers the chance that guests assigned to those tables do not turn up for meals. Many guests opt out of eating at the dining room often, and choose to visit the many specialty restaurants on board or eat in port.
Through the system of auto-gratuities, crew are ensured a more balanced take home pay at the end of their contracts.
Compensation for crew in housekeeping as well as food and beverage from the company can often be as low as US$2 a day. That is far less than what one could expect to earn even at a budget establishment on land in India. However, gratuities make up for more than 95 per cent of the take home pay on board a cruise line.
When gratuities come into the picture, cruise ship crew can take home a decent chunk of money. Assistant waiters can expect to make around US$900 (Rs 58,000) per month on the low end, experienced dining room waiters can take home as much as US$3200 (Rs 200,000), and assistant maitre d’s could make around US$4000 in total (Rs 260,000) per month.
Similarly, through gratuities, housekeeping staff like a cabin steward can expect to take home around US$2000 (Rs130,000) per month.
Compensation is one of the biggest draws of the cruise ship industry, and if the take home pay was not as appealing as it is, there would be fewer prospective employees vying for jobs.