Flags of Convenience

    A project examining the labor laws and industry practices of cruise lines from the perspective of the workers. The photographs were made over the course of nine contracts between 2014 and 2018, while working as a crew member onboard various ships owned by Royal Caribbean, P&O, Holland America, and Cunard. The project was assembled and completed in early 2020, just before the Coronavirus Pandemic halted the cruise industry.

I have also arranged an abbreviated version of the images from this project into a simple slideshow without text. If you have issues with formatting or viewing on a mobile device, I recommend taking a look at the slideshow instead. Please click here to view the slideshow.

    It’s surprisingly quiet to watch a ship weighing 150,000 tonnes depart from a city of seven million people. The port lets out a faint siren as its robotic gangways fold into themselves. The bow thrusters and propellers rumble under the control of the Captain and his officers on the bridge, and the live band on the ship’s aft decks is playing a familiar song. Four decks below them, the deckhands are putting away the mooring lines that fiercely gripped the ship to the dock.
    But the city is silent. No one comes to watch the ship leave. Hong Kong’s new cruise terminal, a sterile structure of glass and metal, sits at the end of the old Kai Tak Airport runway. The departure is nothing like the oil paintings depicted; there are no crowds on the dock with handkerchiefs, or tugboats escorting the ship to sea. This scene is romanticized by the old passenger lines like Cunard and Holland America Line, commemorated in the old photographs and paintings littering the hallways of their modern sixteen-story behemoths. Actual on-board museums display curated timelines of ship design, celebrity activity, accidents and sinkings, the pressures of war, and the globalization of the maritime industry.
  Now many of these companies are owned by Carnival Corporation, the largest operator of cruise ships in the world. Each brand is marketed at a different price point to a different age group (guests who sail on a 119-night Cunard “World Voyage” expect different services from the partiers on a 3-night booze-cruise out of Miami). The crew is interchangeable, the ships are mostly indistinguishable, and the business is more lucrative than ever before.
    The reason these companies are so successful is because of a series of loopholes in the American legal system that allow them to operate at lower costs. For instance, Carnival Corporation is headquartered in Miami, but it’s incorporated under the laws of Panama, where many of its ships are conveniently registered. This allows them to pay a corporate tax rate of just 1.1%, and hire an international crew to staff their fleet of a hundred ships, paid well below American minimum wage and beyond normal American working hours. These practices are followed by every major cruise line.

The Queen Mary 2 departing from Hong Kong, 2018.

A Short History of Open Registries

    As long as ships have existed, they have represented the wealth and power of nations. Used as tools of discovery, trade, and war, they have acted as the overreaching hands of countries across bodies of water. The flags hanging off their sterns indicated the interests of the ship’s owners, the laws it followed, and the country it represented.
    The exceptions to this rule for various reasons date back thousands of years. Greek sea-traders would operate on behalf of Roman merchants. English shipowners re-registered their ships with the Spanish flag in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to gain access to trading in the West Indies. American ships flew Portuguese flags during the War of 1812 to avoid conflicts with the British. During prohibition, bootleggers registered their ships outside the US so they could carry alcohol. And during World War II, the American Government re-registered ships with the neutral Panamanian flag to continue aiding European allies. The US-Panama relationship is mostly responsible for the modern flagging system.
    The war directly affected the size of domestic shipping vessels: They were now produced smaller so as to minimize loss in the event of a submarine attack. Unfortunately, this left the entire market with small and unsustainable ships after the war, and the American shipping industry almost collapsed against the booming post-war truck industry. The invention of the shipping container in 1957, possibly the greatest advancement ever in cargo-shipping, would require a new fleet of large ships to be profitable. So as the US shipping industry slowly grew in size, other open registries were created with the help of the US Government as a dumping ground for the older ships. Strong ties to the countries of Panama and Liberia meant that the United States could still call on ships registered there during heightened escalations with Russia, with those registries behaving like a foreign merchant marine.
    Meanwhile, labor laws in Great Britain and the rise of trans-Atlantic flight resulted in a quick end to the ocean liner industry. Throughout the 1960s, ocean liners were laid up and scrapped, sold, and abandoned. The companies that fought to survive rerouted their ships to the Caribbean for leisure cruises, but these were ships made for traversing great seas with deep drafts and fast speeds. Their engines weren’t efficient at slower speeds, and they hadn’t been designed for comfort. The design of cruise ships has slowly evolved to provide individual balconies, shallow drafts to fit into smaller ports, and more outdoor pools and sun decks. But just as essential as ship design was the implementation of cheap labor - no longer bound by unionized domestic crew, the companies could take advantage of the loose laws of foreign registries to hire a less expensive workforce. And so now, the majority of deckhands, cabin stewards, and other lower-paying positions of any given cruise ship are from the Philippines.
A deckhand putting away the Koningsdam’s flag sailing away from Ålesund, Norway. 2017.

Crew members on deck, 2015-2018.

Riding the edge of a storm on the Oasis of the Seas, with 6,300 passengers and 2,400 crew members. In the Caribbean Sea, 2014.

    Most modern cruise ships carry between two and six thousand passengers, and a third of that in crew. The economies of scale allow them to efficiently operate in Caribbean ports, quickly sailing out of Florida with mostly American tourists. The ships are divided between the hotel department (mostly upper decks) and the deck department (mostly lower decks). The public spaces and hallways have secondary exits leading to hidden crew stairways, all of which lead to the lifeboat deck.
    Carnival Corporation (Carnival, Costa, Princess, Holland America, Cunard, P&O, AIDA, Seabourn), Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd (Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, TUI, Pullmantur, Azamara), and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd (Norwegian, Oceania, Regent Seven Seas) control a combined total of nearly eighty percent of the global market share. The ships are built in European shipyards - STX in Finland, Chantiers de l'Atlantique in France, Meyer Werft in Germany, Fincantieri in Italy - and every few years the ships migrate back to Europe for drydock repairs and renovations. They are too large to fit in drydocks in the Americas, but instead are designed around the constraints of the Panama Canal.
    The old canal’s limiting dimensions were referred to as Panamax, but a new set of locks opened in 2016 with a much larger carrying capacity, known as the Neo-Panamax specifications. This new addition allows for some of the largest ships to easily transfer from their traditional Caribbean routes to Alaska, Australia, and Asia. Meanwhile, the Neo-Panamax canal is reshaping the shipping industry, with many recently-built Panamax ships being laid up for scrap in favor of larger ones.

The Costa Deliziosa, one of eleven nearly-identical Panamax ships built for Carnival Corporation brands in the mid-2000s. Dominican Republic, 2017.

Natalie, dancer.

Maria, shopping attendant.

Gergely, musician.

Maria, crew purser.

Pilot boats preparing to receive a cruise ship at the shipping port of Laem Chabang, Thailand. 2018.

    The Peninsular & Oriental Steam Navigation Company - now P&O Cruises - claims the title of oldest cruise line with tours offered in 1844 from England to Gibraltar, Malta, and Athens. The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 allowed for P&O, the Orient Steam Navigation Company, and the British India Steam Navigation Company to compete for mail contracts and offer express passenger lines between Britain and its colonies in Asia and Australia. Equally significant was the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1885, connecting the eastern cities of North America with a Pacific shipping route. Canadian Pacific built an empire of ships operating in the Pacific and the Atlantic. With their railway, built by Chinese and European immigrants, they were able to offer a secondary route between the West and the East.
    It didn’t take long for passenger lines to capitalize on the mystery of the Orient, which in the nineteenth century could refer to anything from Northern Africa to the Middle East, India, China, Japan, Vietnam, and the islands of Southeast Asia. The ships carrying supplies and mail to Britain’s colonies could also bring wealthy tourists. Many of these vessels would be borrowed by governments during war, restricting the possibilities for luxury travel in the early twentieth century.
    Over a third of the modern cruise industry sails in the Caribbean, another region of former imperial exploration and western colonization. Nations built from former slave colonies now sell cheap trinkets and resort passes to tourists. Entire islands in the Bahamas are leased or bought out by the cruise lines as private resorts. These islands have their own histories; Norwegian Cruise Lines’ Great Stirrup Cay was once settled by Lucayan Indians, served as a pirate hideout, hosted a confederate plantation during the American Civil War, and was used as a defensive outpost during the Second World War. Now, ships dock off its coast and ferry passengers onto pristine beaches. Food is buffet-style like on the ship, served by crew members and local workers who live on the island. The profits from selling souvenirs are collected by the company, instead of going to the people of the Bahamas. In this way, the island is just a further extension of the potential profitability of the corporation.

Crew members on the Britannia in Norway, 2016.

The CDF Horizon in Stavanger, Norway. 2017.

The bridge of the Queen Elizabeth. 2018.

Galley workers on break. New Zealand, 2018.

The Queen Mary 2’s funnel. Sailing into Hong Kong, 2018.

The Caribbean Princess off the coast of England, 2016.
According to papers filed in court, the Caribbean Princess had been making illegal discharges through bypass equipment since 2005, one year after the ship began operations. The August 2013 discharge approximately 23-miles off the coast of England involved approximately 4,227 gallons within the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone. At the same time as the discharge, engineers ran clean seawater through the ship’s monitoring equipment in order to conceal the criminal conduct and create a false digital record for a legitimate discharge.”

    In 2016, the US Department of Justice fined Princess Cruises forty million dollars for eight years of illegal dumping and an attempted cover-up, after a whistleblower reported the incidents to the British and American Coast Guards. It was the largest criminal penalty ever charged for deliberate vessel pollution. Princess Cruises had previously been fined twenty million dollars for illegally dumping 66,000 gallons of pool water into Alaska’s Glacier Bay in 2011, and multiple Princess ships were fined for violating Alaskan air and water standards in 2018. Princess Cruises is just one of Carnival Corporation’s nine brands.

Simon takes a break from setting up a birthday party in the crew bar. 2018.

Crew members relaxing in their cabins, 2018/2016.

Will gets a haircut from Gwapito, 2017.

    The crew are housed below the passenger decks, and often below sea level. The hallways are narrow and winding, easy to get lost in. If the upper decks resemble a luxury hotel, the crew quarters are a warship. Watertight and splash-tight doors guard the hallways and are remotely closed from the bridge; they can trap you just as easily as they can save you. Instructional videos prove their ability to take off an arm or a leg or a finger.
    The main amenities - cafeterias, bars, religious spaces, rec rooms, training facilities - are usually placed along the main crew corridor. On some ships the corridor is called the I-95, on others it’s called Burma Road (when soldiers were crammed into every conceivable space on requisitioned liners, it was so hot that it reminded them of Burma). Life as a crew member is driven by a few social events per week, nightly trips to the crew bar, and a deep realization of the mantra work hard, play harder. A smartphone app designed for crew members counts down the days left of a contract on a digital dial. The app is glanced at during breaks throughout the day, and occasionally before going to sleep at night.
    A severe social hierarchy exists within the ship’s company, confining groups by rank and nationality. The younger, lower-ranking officers especially seem to enjoy restricting the amenities of the staff and crew. Each department eats at their own table; the officers’ mess is separate from the staff mess, which is separate from the crew mess. The largest ships have the most cliques, but also provide more entertainment and resources for crew members.

The crew rec room on Eurodam, 2016.

A supervisor watches as deckhands clean the hull of the Boudicca, an older cruise ship. Madeira, 2017.

Birds flying just above the South China Sea, spotted from the ship’s top deck. 2018.

A crew member gazes at the Sydney Opera House. Workers are often too busy to get off the ship, especially in turnaround and re-stocking ports like Sydney.

The shipping port of Walvis Bay, Namibia. 2018.

The World is an exclusive ultra-luxury ship owned by its residents. By living on it for most of the year, they are able to use the ship as a floating tax haven. Bergen, Norway. 2018.

Shared spaces between cruising and cargo shipping, 2017-2018.

The lowest decks of cruise ships have low ceilings, and are filled with technical equipment.
Buses prepare to welcome 2,600 tourists to the island of Reunion.

    The scale of expansion in the cruise industry is astounding. Global traffic per year has increased from 5.8 million passengers in 1998 to 26 million passengers in 2018. It is projected to reach 40 million in about ten years. Every few months, a new four-thousand-passenger behemoth is floated out of the shipyards in Europe. Stronger environmental regulations have begun to take effect, but the lobbying power of the corporations, as well as their ambiguous international statuses, helps them avoid stricter laws that are bound to individual nations. The nations that hold the largest open registries - Malta, the Bahamas, and Panama - are seemingly uninterested in writing legislation that would damper their relationships with the cruise lines.
  There have been limited efforts into making the cruise industry more sustainable. Carnival Corporation launched Fathom, a social-impact brand that allowed for volunteer-vacations in the Caribbean; the brand lasted about a year before shutting down. There are also significant environmental advances ongoing with low-pollutant LNG fuel. The first fully-LNG-powered cruise ships were launched in 2019, and with many more on order, it looks like much of the industry will move away from diesel and dirty oil in the future. Norway has been progressive on banning the oldest and most polluting of ships from entering its pristine fjords, and monitoring exhaust fumes (via drone) of ships operating in their waters. This is useful for Norway, but it will just drive the operators of these vessels to reposition them to a country that cares more about the income than the environmental effects.

Sailing out of Geiranger, Norway. 2017.

The Queen Mary 2 departing from Hong Kong, 2018.