Notice the volume of staff working at your neighbourhood hotel, your favourite restaurants, pubs, casinos, spas and gyms. Now add them all together and throw in some more for administration and you have an approximate number of people working on a cruise ship.
Chefs on board might take up a small portion of these, but thanks to the vast number and array of cafés, food stalls, and restaurants, there are many who will be working the kitchens on a single ship. So what’s it like to work on board?
There is only a maximum number of staff you can employ to set the cash registers ringing while getting the job done. This typically translates to long working hours and set contracts. Depending on your position in the hierarchy, your contract could range from four months to nine months. The lower you are on the rung, the lengthier your contract.
Between contracts, international guidelines require that cruise ship companies offer a minimum number of days off, and this ranges between 45 to 60 days depending on the employer.
This helps offset the nature of work hours in that cruise ship chefs, along with other employees on board, do not get a day off during the duration of their contract. This means that in certain situations, staffs are on call 24 hours a day. However, this rarely occurs and every crew member is assured time off during the day when they can relax. This does not mean that work is easy. It is not uncommon for crew to work 100 hours a week during peak season.
Critics around the world have often lambasted cruise ship companies for what they call “sweatshop conditions” – long work hours with little pay. The truth is that companies do change pay scales according to nationalities only because the exchange rate makes it favourable to both employer and employee.
Typically, cruise ships offer around $800 – $900 (Rs 543,500 – Rs 60,200) a month for entry-level positions where staff require a short term of prior experience – usually a year – in the culinary field. In developed countries like the US, where minimum wages are now at about $7.25 an hour, this pay would hardly cut it. But for countries like India and the Philippines, this is a fair bit more than one would be paid per month at a job in the same position on land.
As you climb up the ladder, salaries obviously increase, and go up to $1900 – $2500 (Rs 127,200 to Rs 167,400) a month for a commis 1 or first cooks and further for more senior positions.
It helps to note that on board expenses are minimal and most cruise ship chefs can save a significant portion of their salaries during their contract. Employees are not paid while on leave.
Room and board is paid for by the cruise ship company for all employees on board. Cabins, however, are most often shared by two and can get cramped depending on the size of the ship. Many staff have described it as living in a university dorm, but in general, while not large, accommodation is comfortable and sufficient.
All meals are served in dedicated cafeterias – the crew mess, staff mess and officer’s mess – depending on where you are in the hierarchy. Contrary to popular belief, staff do not eat the same food as guests. They have dedicated kitchens serving a mix of dishes from around the world, generally bent towards the various nationalities working on board. So you will not miss out on “home food”, and will also get a chance to taste food from other countries on a regular basis.
Cruise ships also offer a wide range of recreational and social activities for employees, included dedicated gyms and swimming pools, movie nights, theme parties, festivals, games and more. Crew pay much lower rates for alcohol at the crew bar and for convenience items from the crew store.
There also are discounted internet rates to keep in touch with family back home, and sometimes even tours in port.