What should new hires consider before joining cruise ships amid COVID-19 pandemic?

Aug 02, 2020

With the restart of cruises in Germany, and the final preparations by the cruise lines in Italy, hopes are high amongst the crew who are back in their home countries eagerly awaiting their sign on dates. In Italy, Costa Cruises and MSC Cruises are ready to initiate voyages on 4 ships as soon as they receive the green light from the Italian government. Final efforts have also been made for staffing cruise ships with a sufficient number of crew. As we reported on July 30, MSC Cruises flew 230 Mauritian crew members on a charter flight to Genoa, Italy for the purpose of boarding them on two of their ships. It is important to underline that the Mauritius national public broadcaster MBC, reported that most of these employees were newly hired crew recruited by the country’s manning agency, for MSC Cruises, named Oceangoers.

In addition to the obvious reasons of Oceangoers and MSC Cruises proceeding with the new recruits and hires in the midst of the pandemic, it is important to mention some keynotes for the first time crew before they decide to join the cruise ships.

The Mauritian recruits were informed by their agency about the new set of rules implemented by MSC Cruises, including the restriction on shore leave for the duration of the entire contract, which has been presented by the company to be 5 months. A letter circulating on social media, which was sent by the recruiting agency, explains in detail all the safety and security protocols for crew in order to join the ship, as well the rules they need to follow once on board.

There’s a belief that MSC Cruises will soften the rules if everything goes according to plan; however, in the beginning, there will be no shore leave. Other cruise lines might implement this restriction as well or they might allow shore access for the crew. Bear in mind that shore leave restrictions can be enforced by local port authorities or state health officials, so there are many unknowns as well as variables that can change rapidly.

Without any possibility to disembark the ship to visit the ports, the old saying “I like to work on a cruise ship to see the world” does not apply, at least not for the time being. So the main reason why the crew is willing to accept to work on cruise ship is because of the salary. For a majority of the crew this is the number one motivator as to why they joined ships in the first place. However, the cruise lines announced that initially, they will only restart ships with 60% guest capacity. This means that the crew in tipping positions in the Bar Department, Dining Room, and Housekeeping, as well as people working on commission in Gift Shops, Photo Department, and Spa will earn much less then they did before the global pandemic. Now, we don’t know if the cruise lines will make some adjustments by raising commissions or gratuity percentages, but we truly hope they will do so in order to balance risk and reward ratios and to attract more crew, especially the experienced ones.

Here are some opinions of current and former crew for that first time joiners should consider before deciding to work on a cruise ship:

- Know your rights. Find out who the union is and what the CBA entails.

- Don’t be afraid to ask additional questions to your recruiting agency, as well as to talk about concerns you may have.

- Research the company and reviews from crew. Join a crew Facebook group if you can and inquire about the company.

- Compare the benefits of different cruise lines. Now more than ever different cruise lines might implement different rules and restrictions for the crew, especially when it comes to the shore leave.

- Do not underestimate the challenges. It is a great way to travel, to meet lifelong friends and to live some whirlwind romances and experience bucket list adventures. But it is intense long hours on the job. There are usually guests onboard as soon as you join, so there is little time to prove your abilities or even to adjust. 

- Major disasters are quite rare on ships. However, be certain that you prepared for the risk that comes with being at sea, as it requires a great amount of discipline and responsibility to be onboard. Everyone is an active member of the safety and security of the ship. You might have responsibilities for lowering lifeboats, extinguishing fires, etc.

- Relationships take their toll. Some people find their forever person onboard, but many live dual lives, where they have lives at a family at home that they are not leaving completely behind, and if you are not prepared for the promiscuous life onboard, the heart aches can wreak havoc on your wellbeing. The acceptance of both on shore and on board is quite the reality. When the shore wife or husband comes to visit, it is expected that the onboard “partner” disappears, while watching it all unravel in front of their eyes.

- Keeping busy with work is helpful. Do not take for granted that depression does not discriminate and life can feel lonely if you are homesick. Put a well-being plan into place. Develop a routine shortly after getting onboard that includes exercise and people that you can reach out to as a support system if you become homesick

- Bring things that make you feel closer to home like pictures of your loved ones and happy memories to remind you that no matter how bad things get, you are retiring home to that. Bring your favorite snacks and medications that you cannot get abroad. Ensure that you can contact your doctor by phone to refill prescriptions or to get an excess amount of your pills in case you get stuck onboard for several months

- Know that cruise lines operate in international waters and are mainly foreign flagged. Sadly, this allows for some things to slip through that wouldn’t be tolerated in most land based jobs as it they violate human rights. This can include discrimination of nationalities, harassment and favoritism. Unfortunately, most of the cruise companies have a long way to go to correct this, because of the ability to maintain an isolated environment onboard, and due to the challenges that exist to hold international and foreign-flagged vessels accountable.

- Know that the same aspects that cause these some issues are the same aspects that make up the beauty of being onboard. Meeting different cultures and seeing ways of life, traveling to different places, and learning new skills is an educational experience that no school can ever teach.

- The lifelong bonds built on cruise ships are beautiful, unbreakable and unshakable. I met my first roommate over 13 years ago and until this day regardless of how much time passes when we see each other it’s like no time has passed and nothing has changed even though we continued to live different lives.

Article co-author: Krista Thomas