Exploitation and Pollution Aboard: The Hidden Cost of a Cruise

cruse ship

By David Cupples

A recent article (Nov/Dec ’13) in Saturday Evening Post invites reflection and discussion: “Destination Nowhere” by Elizabeth Becker writes about the cruise ship phenomenon, focusing particularly on mega-ships with up to 5000 passengers and more. As someone very interested in reggae, Jamaica and the Caribbean (as well as “equal rights and justice” and the struggles of the “Third World”) I note below some of the major issues raised by the author and open the floor for comments.

An accompanying photo to the article shows three or four of these mega-ships parked off the coast of some exotic beach (Great Bay, St. Maarten), the beach blotted out by beach chairs and umbrellas.

Becker notes that cruises are the most lucrative and fastest growing segment of the tourism industry and remained profitable during the Great Recession beginning 2008. “One key is the very cheap wages” they pay. Almost all the major lines are registered and flagged in foreign countries (Liberia, Panama, etc) that “have no minimum wages, labor standards, corporate taxes, or environmental regulations…”  (They do pay a fee to the host country.) To repeat: The cruise lines pay no corporate taxes. This has helped mega-lines Carnival (45%) and Royal Caribbean (21%) to buy out smaller competitors and control 66% of the global market. Carnival earned $13 Billion in revenue in 2009.

Workers… “earn third-world salaries or worse: many crew members work 10-12 hour days with no OT pay and no days off for months; hourly wages as low as 53 cents; waiters living on tips because their monthly salaries were a token $50.”

“American unions tried to fight back… Congress held hearings… introduced legislation in early ‘90s re: minimum wages and labor protections… The industry won the war over labor handily. Congress even reduced their fees to the INS.”

Adam Goldstein, CEO of Royal Caribbean:  “Typically what they [workers, overwhelmingly from countries like Philippines, India, etc] are able to earn from us is significantly greater than what they are earning if they would have stayed where they were.”

Becker: “Goldstein’s argument is a ‘race to the bottom’ justification, a throwback to the early 20th C. before societies mandated minimum wages, improved labor conditions and the right to collective bargaining.”

Cultural impact.  Becker: “[the surge of] thousands of passengers… [transform] cities and ports, helping push out locals and alter the culture and sense of place that drew tourists in the first place.”

Paul Bennett of Context Travel, Phila.: “Cruise ships… are like portable low-rent Hiltons that go everywhere with little concern for the garbage they leave behind or the havoc they make… “

Environmental impact.  “in one day the average cruise ship produces 21,000 gallons of human sewage; one ton of solid waste garbage; 170,000 gallons of wastewater… 6400 gallons of oily bilge water… 25 pounds of batteries, fluorescent lights, medical wastes and chemicals; 8500 plastic bottles. Multiply by 400 ships cruising year round….  There are no studies of how well that waste is disposed of because ships are not required to follow any state or national laws once in international waters.”

“… ships’ high-sulfur diesel fuel exhaust releases carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide that the EPA considers human carcinogens.” Becker notes an EPA rule taking effect as recently as August 2012 stipulating a 200-mile buffer zone around the US coast in which ships must burn cleaner fuel to reduce nitrogen and sulfur oxides. The rule is expected to prevent 31,000 deaths a year. One boggles at the carnage of human death and misery the ships must have caused before August 2012! And evidently will continue to cause everywhere outside that 200-mile zone around US coasts. Obviously, Jamaica and the West Indies are outside that “healthier” zone. And even within the zone, how many deaths attributable to ship pollutants will continue to occur?

Is it hypocritical?

Becker notes the irony of organizations (NGOs, etc) concerned with human rights and the environment that run fundraising programs aboard cruise ships. “More than one critic has asked if it isn’t hypocritical for such organizations to make hundreds of thousands of dollars on cruise ships that pay poor wages and routinely dump pollutants, the exact practices they deplore.”

Probably Becker’s most contentious statement: “the cruise industry… [underwrites] the expenses of the travel press who are largely mute about the effects of the industry on the environment or the ports they visit.”

Responding to those who call criticism of cruise ship practices and the impacts they have “elitist,” Jonathan Tourtellot of the National Geographic Center for Sustainable Destinations remarks: “Is it elitist to show respect for a beautiful square or beach and for the people who live there and want to protect the beauty that brought the tourists in the first place?”

David Cupples is the author of Stir It Up: The CIA Targets Jamaica, Bob Marley and the Progressive Manley Government, a novel. He can be reached by email at StiritupBob@gmail.com or through his Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/StirItUpCIAJamaica

Reprinted from youth and elders