Monday, 30 April 2012

Old Pirates Yes They Rob I

I returned from Kevin McDonald's new Bob Marley reggumentary this afternoon with the words to "Redemption Song" echoing through my head. Its lyrics - calling for people who were once enslaved to "free their minds" and take charge of their destiny - made me think about the current boom in modern-day slavery.
I know in the olden times young people with nothing to lose would set out to sea as unpaid cabin boys, hoping to cadge a ship's biscuit and some ale for skivvying below decks for months, even years on end.
But surely the age of the unpaid deck-hand is over? No. It is clearly alive and well on the high seas, where the usual laws of employers' decency seem to have been washed away by a freak wave. It's brought the TUC's Brendan Barber out in a pay and conditions rash. I can feel my own skin itching at the injustice as I type.
So we learn the poor waiters on P&O cruises are earning a paltry £250 a month for a 77 hour week, and they can push that up to £400 with tips. Except now, they won't get the pooled tips unless the crew reach their "performance targets". And all this for serving poshed up foods to pensioners hoping to get through the trip without falling overboard or contracting a fatal Norovirus. Or sinking a la Costa Concordia. Blistering Barnacles, as Captain Haddock might say.
The company claims withholding the tips will protect workers from passengers under-tipping during the recession. This way, all the slavery-wage workers will have a slice of the ever-decreasing pie - but only if they bend and scrape to the appropriate level.
But do people who book into £2,000 cruises really hope to make recessionary savings by tipping a bit less? Wouldn't they have saved more by simply staying at home. I would have thought once you'd spent that much, a bit extra for the crew would be (pardon the pun) a drop in the ocean. You might expect that holiday feeling to put people in a tipping mood. Perhaps the Indian and Filipino crew are so oppressed and miss their families so much, they're not smiling enough to earn the extra cash.
But it sounds to me as if P&O and owners Carnival are looking to push their profit margins even further, at the expense of the willing Asian workers who apparently "queue up" to work for them.
Ok, so working on Western cruise ships might be better than shovelling cow dung in the slums of Mumbai, but does that give multi-nationals the right to treat them like indentured workers on sugar-plantations?
Never before has the lyric "Old pirates, yes, they rob I, sold I to the merchant ships" felt more apt...

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