Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Delayed Vacation Blogging (Part II):
Cabin Stewards of the World Unite!

On the day after the Service Employees International Union's long-overdue disaffiliation from the AFL-CIO, it seems only fitting to spend a few moments reflecting on the globalization of the service industry workforce.

PrincessDancingCouplesOnce upon a time, luxury cruises were a dalliance enjoyed only by the hyper-rich; today, the globalization of the pleasure industry workforce has lowered operating costs substantially, so that cruising has become a form of mass tourism, a $13 billion dollar a year industry accessible to a more ordinary class of schlubbos. In the generous company of my mother in law, my wife and I recently took a Princess Cruise, where over the course of two weeks we stopped in nearly a dozen Mediterranean ports and took in more sunshine than we enjoy in an entire year of living in Juneau, where we are plopped in the middle of the world's largest temperate rainforest. Truth be told, we had nothing short of the mindlessly relaxing time promised in the narcotic promotional literature (e.g., "It's all here for you - delicious dining, exciting entertainment and incredible pampering"). We loafed on the deck, glugged vat-sized mixed drinks, loped our way to the eternal buffet at unreasonably short intervals, and — when we weren't being pampered — zipped around the various ports of call, taking photos of Greek and Roman ruins and learning lots of interesting things about the ancient world that we have since forgotten. We met some interesting people, ate some great food, and returned with a small supply of affordable European booze. For two weeks I did not feel wheezy with anxiety over the research projects and two new fall courses that would demand my attention when I returned home.

OE6BWhile all this was transpiring, a young Filipina named Wallapha was cleaning our toilet, changing our linens, showering our room with chocolate candies, and restocking our supply of bottled water. Halfway through a ten-month contract during which time she was granted not a single day off, Wallapha labored 11 hours a day, shared a tiny below-water cabin with another steward, and took in a base salary of $50 a month, earning the rest of her income from tips. In a departure from its earlier, purely voluntary tipping policies, Princess Cruises now automatically bills each passenger $10 a day to cover gratuities for cabin stewards. Although we never found out for certain, my wife and I were quite sure that a sizable chunk of that (now mandatory) "tip" never made it into Wallapha's paycheck. All things considered, she could not have been making more than $15-17,000 per contract. During her three hours off each day, Wallapha was allowed to leave the ship but not permitted to mingle with the passengers, which might blur the strict line between labor and leisure on which the entire fantasy of the cruise depends.

Nonetheless, I was not surprised to find out that Wallapha (who sees her 8-year old daughter for two months a year) intended to continue working for Princess as long as she was capable. The average Filipino lives on less than 60 cents a day, while the Philippine economy staggers under the weight of 20% unemployment, an all-time high that the government seeks to allay by helping overseas employers recruit and export a million workers per year. Remittances from these workers add $8.5 billion annually to the Philippine economy, a sum that constitutes about a tenth of the nation's GNP — more than the combined value of the nation's top five export industries. This is a nation, I often remind my students, that was owned by the United States when my parents were born. The colonial status the Philippines was rationalized as the proper way to extend democratic institutions, Protestantism, and economic modernization to a benighted people. So much for all that.

Given all this, here's an example of what not to say when encountering your cabin steward in the hallway following an afternoon spent eating corn dogs and drinking vodka by the pool:

WALLAPHA: Hi there, how are you today?
ME: Boy, I'm tired.