Frontline World

SPAIN - The Lawless Sea, January 2004

Related Features THE STORY
Synopsis of "The Lawless Sea"

Interactive Atlas

Troubled Waters

The Case of the Prestige

Regulation, the Environment, Labor




Hiding Behind The Flag
Intro Belize Bahamas Panama Tonga Liberia

BAHAMAS: Cruising a Sea of Labor Complaints

The International Ship Registry of the Bahamas provided a flag to the notorious single-hulled oil tanker Prestige. In spite of this individual embarrassment, international regulators consider the registry one of the better flags of convenience. It is also the world's largest cruise ship registry, which has attracted negative attention from international labor organizations. According to these groups, cruise lines choose to fly the Bahamian flag in order to avoid the more stringent labor regulations that would apply if they were registered in the United States or other countries where the cruise industry is owned and based.

Representatives of the Bahamian registry state that the Bahamian Merchant Marine Shipping Act, which includes provisions on labor, is based upon shipping law in the United Kingdom and offers substantial legal protection for maritime workers. However, the registry does not require ships flying the Bahamian flag to employ Bahamians and admits that this enables ship owners to hire less expensive labor, from countries such as the Philippines, India and Indonesia. (More than 40 percent of the workers on board Bahamian ships are from the Philippines.) Labor law protections may also be weaker in these countries than in the Bahamas or the ship owner's home country.

Major cruise lines flagged in the Bahamas include Carnival, Disney, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Lines. According to the International Transport Workers' Federation, more than a third of the workers on board cruise ships work 10- to 12-hour days, seven days a week. And on board Disney and Carnival cruise ships, for example, where there are no union agreements, employees receive no compensation for the large amount of overtime labor. These hours are considered "normal working hours." In addition, recruiting agents employed by some cruise ship companies have been alleged to charge workers between US$1,500 and US$2,000 to find them a job, a practice that is strictly forbidden by international maritime law. The end result can be that many workers spend their first few months working off an enormous debt -- what union officials consider a state of indentured servitude. Officials from the cruise industry generally deny these charges. According to one Carnival representative, working on board a cruise ship offers employees "a positive and comfortable working environment and an opportunity to earn tremendously higher wages than they can in their homeland."


Ship owners seeking the Bahamian flag do not have to be based in the Bahamas, and offshore profits are not taxed. They are not required to disclose any details of their company when they register and are guaranteed that these details cannot be accessed through public records.


The Bahamian flag has been given "good" performance ratings by analysts from the University of Cardiff's Seafarers International Research Center for its operations and fleet maintenance. In addition, Bahamian ships have low detention ratings in the United States and Europe. However, the agencies giving these ratings as well as major international labor organizations say the registry does a poor job of protecting employee rights and welfare.


Destiny is one of eight Bahamian-flagged ships operated by Carnival Cruise Lines. The ship can accommodate 2,600 passengers. It takes 1,050 crew members to cater to these guests during their weeklong tours of the Caribbean. According to an article published in the Miami Herald in February 2000, a cook on board the Destiny was required to work a 14-hour day, seven days a week, for the duration of her contract, approximately nine months. For this, the cook earned US$150 per week, or US$1.50 per hour for a 98-hour week. The International Labor Organization's minimum wage and standard is US$465 per week for 10-hour days, seven days a week. Another article in 2002, in the Los Angeles Times, describes the schedules and pay for janitors, bartenders and other low-level hotel-type staff as similar.

When asked if these hours and wages are still accurate, a Carnival representative stated that the company does not disclose salaries for either shore-side or shipboard employees. The representative also said, "Cruise lines offer significantly higher wages than employees can typically earn in their home country and that is why there are thousands of people lining up for jobs within the cruise industry."

According to statistics gathered by the International Transport Workers' Federation, however, the average length of time that employees remain on board a cruise ship has dropped from an average of five years in 1970 to nine months in 2000. This suggests that there is high employee turnover and that few employees are choosing to stay beyond their initial contract.

• Introduction
• Belize: Where Have All the Fish Pirates Gone?
• Bahamas: Cruising a Sea of Labor Complaints
• Panama: Home of "Convenience"
• Tonga: Closed for Security Concerns
• Liberia: Ruling the Waves From Virginia

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