A leading cruise operator launches an investigation after secret filming by Channel 4 Dispatches reveals working conditions that would be illegal in the UK.
Many of the lowest ranked workers who chose to work on cruise ships come from poor countries where their wages can support whole families.
Channel 4 Dispatches' undercover reporter spent five weeks working aboard the Celebrity Eclipse - operated by Celebrity Cruises - to investigate if these workers are being treated fairly.
The investigation discovered:
A stately cruise around glamorous foreign cities and breath-taking scenery, waited upon night and day is a popular fantasy which has grown into a $34 billion (£21 billion) holiday industry.
Last year alone a record 1.7 million Brits choose a holiday on the ocean waves. But as a maritime lawyer explained, public awareness about the reality of the workers conditions on cruise ships is ‘as close to zero as you can get'.
Our undercover reporter worked aboard the Celebrity Eclipse while it took in various destinations throughout Western Europe including the picturesque Norwegian Fjords.
For guests the luxury cruise liner has a five star experience offering 10 restaurants, 9 bars, a casino, pool, theatre, volleyball and more.
Our reporter's role involved serving meals morning, noon and night. His working day spanned more than 16 hours.
Over the five weeks aboard the Celebrity Eclipse his earnings work out at £2.24 an hour, less than half the UK national minimum wage.
Three days after the ship had left port, he received an employment contract to sign with less favourable pay conditions then had been promised to him by a British recruitment agency. If he didn't like the contract and leaves, he would have had to pay his own way home from the next port - in Iceland.
In addition he ran up over £570 in costs just to get his job including paying for his uniform, a compulsory medical and a visa.
Flags of convenience
So how did our undercover reporter and some of his crewmates make far less than they would if they worked in the UK?
That's because the Celebrity Eclipse's American owners are, in law, based in Africa and the ship itself flies the flag of Malta. British rules and regulations do not apply.
This policy - flying a flag of convenience - is criticized for lowering employment standards.
Ross Klein, sociologist and cruise expert, says: "A flag of convenience is taking a ship and registering it in a country which is different than the beneficial ownership of the ship itself... The reason for the foreign registry is that they're governed then by the laws of the country where they're registered."
"The product is able to be given to you cheaper because the workers aren't being paid and the company isn't required to perform under certain regulations and laws. The companies are able to escape the costs that any land based provider of a vacation can't escape," he adds.
Staff in debt to get their jobs
Our undercover reporter spoke to a number of staff who started the cruise heavily in debt just to get their jobs.
One waiter claimed to have paid a recruitment agent $3,500 in fees and for a flight, to get a job on the ship. He says he will have to work for 12 months to make back the money.
He tells our undercover reporter that his basic salary is just $607 a month - equivalent to less than £1.30 an hour.
Another waiter working aboard the Celebrity Eclipse from Indonesia also claimed to have paid $1,500 to an agent in fees and for a flight to get a job onboard.
Professor Michael Bloor from Seafarers International Research Centre says: "Placement fees are illegal under existing international regulations....a seafarer will be working on a ship for quite a period of time before he's paid off the debt he's incurred."
"In effect it's like bonded labour that they don't feel free to leave the ship no matter what the working conditions, the living conditions and so on," he adds.
Celebrity Cruises said in a statement: "Celebrity Cruises prohibits hiring partners and recruiting agencies from collecting fees from employees seeking employment onboard our vessels, except for preapproved costs. Preapproved costs which include a required pre-employment medical examination, costs for a visa and certain travel costs, which is standard in the industry. Any additional costs charged by the hiring partners are forbidden and Celebrity Cruises will take appropriate action against any agency violating these requirements."
Crew members pay others staff just to keep ahead of their work
Channel 4 Dispatches has also learned in the cruise industry some of the lowest ranked workers claim they have to pay colleagues. One cleaner on the Celebrity Cruises explains that he has to hire other workers, out of his own pocket, to help stay on top of his work load.
Some ex-staff even allege that it is a deliberate policy to force workers to subsidise the running costs.
Five hundred current and former employees are trying to take legal action against the Royal Caribbean.Sherine Renford worked for Royal Caribbean as a stateroom attendant until last year told Channel 4 Dispatches: "You're looking at 13 - 14 hours a regular day and 16 for the boarding day". Sherine says that she would spend up to 40% of her own wages hiring other people to help her finish on time.
"We just have to hire these guys to help us - and then I'd have to pay him a $120 for the 7 days in the morning session - if he works with me in the night I would pay him $100 for the 7 days," she says.
Carlos Llinas, a Maritime Lawyer representing the employees says: "You're given way too much work and instead of the company providing you with the assistants to be able to finish that work - and paying for those assistants - the company's forcing you to pay those assistants.
"How one court described it recently - in a case against another cruise line - it is... as if the company was taking their money away from them," he adds.
Response from Celebrity Cruises
Celebrity Cruises told Chanel 4 Dispatches they were investigating all of our allegations and would take swift action if they found wrongdoing.They respected international agreements with labour unions which "provide reasonable pay and benefits, including guaranteed monthly pay for tip-earning employees. ... Most receive tips significantly higher than the minimum guarantee each month."
"The agreements also contain mandatory overtime pay, free room and board, mandatory rest, medical coverage and sick pay ... along with other benefits."
The company added: "While we are disappointed to hear the concerns of your reporter, we don't believe your reporter's concerns these are representative of more than 13,000 satisfied employees who deliver memorable holidays."
"Celebrity Cruises denies any claim stating that employees are assigned workloads which require them to hire a personal helper to complete. There have been instances where employees voluntarily pay another employee to assist them with their work; however, this practice is not sanctioned by the company"
Celebrity Cruises also told Chanel 4 Dispatches that our reporter should have received his contract on his first day aboard but the delay was caused by a recruiting agency error. His pay was right for the job.
Cruises Undercover: The Truth Below Deck - Channel 4 Dispatches on Monday 1st October 2012 at 8pm