Red tape in front of my cabin - Crew member's life matters

Feb 15, 2023

The following article is based on a true story by Mladen Jakovljevic - former crew member and author of the book "Modern Age Slavery"

It was almost 1 pm when we finally boarded the cruise ship in Sydney, Australia. Security screening, endless documents, and tons of new information are like icing on the cake for newly joined crew members. That is usually the most challenging moment of the entire contract of each individual. Our orientation program is scheduled at 2 pm, and I can see confusion from all the information given for newly signed crew members pretending they were on top of the game.

After the onboard safety presentations, meeting department managers, schedules, company expectations, rules, and regulations were given along with safety vests and emergency cards. When the general safety briefing for guests and crew finished around 4 pm, it was time to find our cabins, one of the most critical and exciting factors for most crew members on board, simply because they will be sharing a 7-square-meter cabin. The cabin felt like a shoebox for someone like me, especially with a random roommate from some of the 72 nationalities on board.

That day I got lucky. I met my new cabin mate, Gabor. He looked neat and clean, which is a big deal when sharing a small cabin with someone. As we walked around and still felt lost in the crew area searching for our place, we finally found cabin number B442. Located two decks below level zero. I was dragging my baggage through the tinny metal stairs to get surprised when I saw the red tape right in front of our cabin. Gabor was staring at me, confused for a moment. Still, I calmly explained that the housekeeping department probably cleaned the crew corridor and marked the area in front of our cabin with red tape to avoid passing.

Gently, I removed the tape in front of the door as we entered the small place for the first time. I knew everything was shocking for Gabor, a Hungarian assistant waiter, who was stepping on the cruise ship for the first time, so I took extra time to guide him through all the necessary details about life on board. He seemed like a nice guy, polite and friendly. When we entered our cabin, it was 4 pm. 

I was expected to arrive at work precisely at 5 pm, and no matter how many times I have come to a crew cabin, it still felt shocking. It was weird on top of everything because of some unusual details that we came across. 

The upper bed was still not fixed and tidied up, with the remaining old linen from the previous crew member before we came. That was strange because housekeeping always properly placed clean bedding for all newly signed crew members. Also, we found shoes and a cook's uniform in the small shoe rack underneath the bed cabinet. Gabor could hardly speak English; therefore, it was hard for us to communicate. Despite that language barrier, I tried to help him adjust to a new living and working environment. He pointed at wrinkled clothes on the small cabinet, and probably he was bothered by it as much as I was. Surprises kept coming as we found more personal belongings from someone else. I have found a letter and a name tag of an Indian cook on the upper bunk bed under the pillowcase. It was getting more confusing; why would the crew coordinator let us enter the cabin not appropriately cleaned? And more importantly- what was this red tape in front of our cabin door? 

Gabor was only at his first contract on the cruise ship, which was way too much to handle. Quickly, I went upstairs to the Linen Room to get new clean linen and some pillowcases. Every cruise ship has a different class and size, and upon our arrival, it can take about two weeks to learn all crew and guest corridors on board. The linen room for the crew members was on Deck C, one level down our cabin, and so I went there, and took clean linen, blankets, pillowcases, and fresh towels for both of us, which the housekeeping department usually does. 

Gabor seemed physically and emotionally drained with sorrow in his eyes after long flights from the day before, information overflowing upon getting on board and the top, all this mystery with red tape around our small cabin. Being a somehow experienced crew member, I have tried to calm him down and to encourage him that everything will be brave. "Gabor, I know this might seem a little too much to handle now. Every beginning is hard; that is normal. In the long run, these challenges will make you feel stronger, and all this will become a valuable experience for your future; take one day at a time, and I will help you with everything as much as possible". 

He did not show any reaction to my words. His eyes and tears were pouring down like sudden rain. 

We both needed to prepare for our first day at work onboard the cruise ship, yet it seemed that Gabor was not prepared to take on these challenges. It is not a health-friendly environment far from our families, stuck in the smallest cabin. I have learned how to deal with that and suppress my feelings throughout my career. But with Gabor, I could sense that he was anxious and homesick. 

Instinctively, I decided to give him some privacy and time. Quickly I left the cabin and ran upstairs to the crew coordinator's office. I was trying to get more information about that red tape in our cabin. A long line of newly signed crew members was waiting in front of the crew office.

When my turn came up, I politely approached the crew office desk and showed them the plastic bag where I gathered all the stuff of that Indian cook or whoever that crew member left his belongings in that cabin. 

"Excuse me, madam, maybe you can help me understand why we were given a cabin that is still occupied, or if not, then is it maybe the housekeeping in charge forgot or missed cleaning our cabin? I found clothes, a cook's uniform; one can of soda, shoes, and some letters I assumed were in the Indian language. Also, do you know anything about the red tape wrapped around our room? " 

Is that cabin B422"? She asked me loudly." 

The crew coordinator looked like she knew something but was not willing to share the information with me.

Finally, with hesitation in her voice, she said:

" Ok, listen…A crew member went missing on our last voyage three days ago. The Captain and Staff Captain have ordered a full investigation of that case, and therefore, the housekeeping department could not prepare that cabin for your arrival. 

Police were on board this morning before you guys signed on the ship, and an investigation is still ongoing."

I interrupted her in disbelief, saying, " I am confused as to why we were assigned to that cabin with all the personal belongings from that person who probably went overboard three days ago."

I immediately asked if they could move us to another cabin. The crew coordinator seemed to be not bothered or concerned at all. As she was saying, " There is no other available cabin on board at this time. I am afraid you do not choose to stay in that cabin until they find a newly available crew cabin. Blood rushed through my brain, and I became so uneasy. However, I had to keep my composure as I got ready for my first working day.

An Indian crew member went missing

I heard some information before that incident; he complained to his colleagues that he was fed up with how the management mistook him in inhumane working conditions. Days after, he went missing, and according to the police investigation, he jumped overboard, based on n the ship's CCTV. He also wrote a letter to his family, which is the same letter I found under the pillow. 

This scenario has chilled me, my roommate, me, and the entire crew. Most of us crew members wondered, and so many unanswered questions went through our heads. I can not help but think that Human Resources should be on top of this situation, especially in assisting and supporting the crew members to cope with the recent event. The management ordered a meeting right after releasing the investigation information. According to management, the missing crew member had "many personal problems at home."

I am trying hard to believe that reasoning, but it is not about that. I have witnessed and experienced the same thing as that missing crew member. I always think that the crew members are just numbers and can be easily replaced, which is confirmed. Unofficially, later on, I found out from several other crew members that the missing crew member was exposed to inadequate treatment; he was always yelled at and threatened to be fired. I think that he probably could not handle the pressure from his supervisors anymore and felt helpless.

Financial goals and targets were the priorities on board, and there was no space for empathy and compassion towards crew members. The management team would often say:

"If you do not like working here, go home; millions of people are waiting for your job." 

Sarcastically, how encouraging and motivating that sounds. As I always try to look on the other side of the coin and keep a positive perspective, I can't still help but think that the company is not providing enough regulations, policies, and services to ensure its crew's well-being. That company needs to maintain a healthy working environment.