May 22, 2024 Last Updated 6:09 AM, May 21, 2024

Floating World

Nilan and Artini
Published: Jan 27, 2014

Pam Nilan and Luh Putu Artini

Cruise Ship Training College in Bali - Michelle Mansfield 

Indonesian cruise ship service workers have a kind of cosmopolitan experience at sea. They seem to be good candidates for the development of a cosmopolitan outlook. They are well educated, open to the world and regularly mix with people from many nations. They often travel to international destinations. But they do not enjoy the experience.

Such workers are mobile but without the privilege of wealth or free choice. In the words of a Balinese waiter, ‘we can work 14, 16 hours a day. It is very hard. And then we get too much pressure, not only from our supervisor or our bosses, but from our guests, because we often have very demanding guests.’ An Indonesian blog entry warns, ‘for ordinary people, working on a cruise ship seems exciting, full of promise. But the reality is quite the opposite. Living on the ship for months is like living in hell’.

Cruise ship service work might seem similar to hotel work, but it is quite different. On a cruise ship there is no escape from long shifts and cramped conditions, nor from humiliation, exploitation or harassment if it happens.

Balinese cruise ship workers gain skills, confidence and – eventually – some measure of prosperity. Yet long periods at sea can disrupt their cultural, religious and personal life, including marriage and parenthood. On return they are clearly comfortable serving people from all nations, but this is true of many in the tourism sector.

Once they retire from cruise ship work, most do not seem to think differently about things like religion, their identity, the future of the Indonesian nation, or even sexual norms. They do not seem to develop a more cosmopolitan consciousness than other tourism workers, despite years spent out of the country in a multicultural ‘floating world’.

See the World and Get Rich Quick

Luxury cruise ship tourism is big business worldwide. Transnational cruise lines actively recruit from the Philippines and Indonesia, where well-educated workers can be paid low wages. This maximises profits. A cruise ship trainer explained: ‘they want to recruit from Bali, because the English is much better. And also they have the history of serving guests’.

Cruise training courses in Bali cannot keep up with demand from senior high school graduates. Middle and lower-income Balinese parents are proud to see their children get jobs with a cruise line. This leads to more and more young Balinese entering training programs. They expect to make big money. But the real money-earners in Bali are cruise ship training providers and employment agents.

Trainees in Bali certainly imagine a cosmopolitan experience. Young Agus was relishing the idea of travelling ‘around the world by sea.’ Classmate Wawan explained, ‘I want to work on a cruise ship to have an overseas experience, to learn about everything in the world’. A female trainee wrote on the blog Kerja di Kapal Pesiar (Working on a Cruise Ship), ‘I want to travel around the world saving up money and getting rich working on a cruise ship.’

The idea of quick wealth is seductive. A trainee from Bangli said, ‘I want to work on a cruise ship because the wages are higher than hotel work’. Laundry and kitchen workers earn around US$1,000 per month. Service staff earn as little as US$74 per month but can get tips totaling US$2,500 per month or more. This is the lure. Yet money quickly disappears. The training loan of more than US$3,000 must be repaid. Agent fees are around $2,000 per contract. Travel to and from departure must be pre-paid. On-board costs such as uniform laundering are deducted. Back home, families have high expectations - savings fund, motorbikes, cars, house renovations, religious ceremonies, education for younger siblings. One blogger wrote: ‘although cruise ship work builds up money, when you get back to the village you are still poor, basically going backwards’.

Transnational cruise ships sail under ‘flags of convenience’ from countries like Panama. Instead of proper labour regulation they operate under the lax compliance codes of that country. A shift can last 12 hours a day for up to six and a half days a week, over a nine-month contract. Workers sleep in a crowded, windowless cabin and often eat passenger left-overs. Unlike hotel workers in Bali they can’t go home, see their family or separate themselves from the workplace. Internet and mobile phone access is limited and unreliable. A young waiter described short voyages: ‘For the first week they’re sailing from Miami to the Caribbean, and then the next week they’re sailing to the Bahamas or wherever’. He added ‘Sometimes we are overnight in Venice, so we go out. But the bad thing is we need to work hard … so maybe sleep for only three or four hours, and then we have to work again’. Each voyage requires cleaning and supplies, so the work never stops. The cycle of debt, family obligation and the need to save binds them into repeated contracts.

Colonial Nostalgia

Part of the luxury cruising experience for passengers is a nostalgic re-creation of the colonial master-servant relationship. For those who serve them, this is hardly a cosmopolitan experience. Cruise advertisements include statements like: ‘on our ships you are the boss’ and ‘our staff pride themselves in exceeding your every wish’. Balinese trainees are taught never to say no to a passenger request. A cruise trainer said it was hard to teach recruits to keep a happy face: ‘you have to smile all the time, and a real smile, as if you mean it’.

Workers depend on tips so they go out of their way to please passengers. One young waiter learnt to juggle bottles of vodka. He was sure this would charm bar guests and increase his income. Other trainees in Bali were polishing their karaoke skills so they could duet tunefully with passengers to maximise tips.

These are standard tourism strategies. However, consequences for displeasing cruise ship guests are more severe. An experienced waiter told us: ‘if you make one mistake, you have one guest complain, you can go home. You can get fired. Yeah, it’s very bad’. The fired worker forfeits wages and is left at the next port to find their own way home. The same waiter recounted that a wheelchair-bound European passenger once asked to be carried, with his wheelchair, up a narrow stairway to the dining room. There was a lift down the corridor, but the passenger insisted. The waiter obliged and was tipped. But he hurt his back. He did not complain or go to the ship’s doctor because if the event was investigated he might be found to be at fault.

Cosmopolitan Skills?

Cruise ship trainees in Bali aim to break into small business once they have sufficient capital. But it can take ten years or more to save enough. Experienced workers have set up bars, restaurants and guesthouses after leaving cruise ship work. They have used the international skills gained through cruise ship work. They speak foreign languages, especially English; their knowledge of beverage and catering tastes is sophisticated; and they have cutting-edge familiarity with decorating styles and entertainment options. But their main strength seems to be their capacity for confidence and politeness in dealing with people of many nations. This leads to the conclusion that that these workers eventually developed some kind of cosmopolitan outlook. Their apprenticeship was long and difficult.

We asked two current workers if they would like their younger brothers to work on cruise ships. They simultaneously replied: ‘No!’ One added that he would rather his brother became a bank teller. The wages are lower but the job has more local status and stability. Overall, the multicultural ‘floating world’ of the cruise ship does not seem to provide a positive cosmopolitan experience.

Pam Nilan ( teaches sociology at the University of Newcastle, Australia. Luh Putu Artini ( teaches English at Universitas Pendidikan Ganesha in Singaraja. The authors interviewed 35 informants in Bali and read the Indonesian cruise ship worker blog Kerja di Kapal Pesiar.

Inside Indonesia 115: Jan-Mar 2014{jcomments on}

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