On a visit to Baguio a few months ago, the hotel we stayed had several young people working at the front desk, in the restaurant, and as bell hops. What struck me was the fact that they were all working for free.
I soon found out that they were all taking up hotel and restaurant management, and their services at the hotel were for college credits. What I found even more striking was that, after graduation, they were all hoping to find employment overseas, mostly on board international cruise ships, as waiters, room attendants or kitchen personnel. Many of them said they hoped to work with Royal Caribbean, one of the largest cruise lines in the world.
I’m writing this piece on board a Royal Caribbean vessel, Serenade of the Seas, in the course of a Scandinavian cruise with my wife.. This is our third cruise in as many years on Royal Caribbean and, as in the last two trips, Filipinos are all over the ship, providing a variety of services and showing off the very best in Pinoy politeness, courtesy, diligence and discipline.
It turns out that Royal Caribbean has a special fondness for Pinoy workers. According to one news item, as of last count, the company has a Filipino crew of 11,000 and it plans to hire up to 30,000 more Pinoys in the coming years. They work mainly as room attendants, restaurant servers and in the kitchen.
The same news item stated, “Some of the open positions for the cruise line are bakers, butchers, Chef De Partie-Baker, Chef De Partie-Butcher, Chef De Partie-Garde Manager, Chef De Partie-Suchie, Commis, Head Baker, Pastry Sous Chef, Sushi Cook, Pantry Chef, Pantry Cook and Pastry Cooks.”
The company also needs lifeguards, housekeeping personnel, storekeepers, painters, varnishers, electricians, appliance and equipment repairmen, mechanics, motormen, plumbers, upholsterers, and assorted handymen.
I understand that Filipinos are preferred for all of these positions.
According to Richard Pruitt, Vice-President for Safety and Environmental Stewardship of Royal Caribbean, Filipino crew members account for 60% of the cruise line’s work force, making them the largest nationality on board the vessels.
The Philippines has become such an important source of service personnel for the cruise line that it maintains a training facility in Maragondon, Cavite. The facility is managed by the Philippine Center for Advanced Maritime Simulation and Training, Inc. (PHILCAMSAT) and trains up to 2,000 crew personnel a month.
On this current cruise, the pleasant ever-smiling and efficient gentleman serving our meals is Dennis who says he is from Quezon City. A recent Royal Caribbean hire, Dennis says he has been working on cruise ships for over ten years.
We purposely sought out a Pinoy server for our evening meals (which are served in more elegant surroundings than the lunches and breakfasts) because of our experience in past cruises, as well as the testimonials of friends and family members.
Filipino travelers are literally pampered by Pinoy crew members, even to the point of preparing special dishes on request. We asked for adobo during our last cruise and got a sumptuous serving of it, courtesy of one of the chefs who was also a kababayan.
Of course, all the other passengers are given special attention by cruise line crew members and one reason is that cruise personnel survive on tips. They are paid less than the minimum wage or are not paid regular wages at all. The convenient rationale given by the cruise lines is that this is an incentive for providing excellent service to customers to motivate the latter to give handsome tips. In truth, by passing on to the travelers the burden of paying what, in effect, is the principal income of the workers, the companies are able to keep overhead down and are also able to keep the cost of cruises relatively low.
The sad tale of a Pinoy waiter who attended to us during a Mediterranean cruise is soap opera stuff. According to him, because he had to be deserving of his share of the consolidated tips for a given day, which are split among the servers, he could not afford to get sick. Even when he had a fever he still forced himself to work.
And, like all other overseas workers, he had to plod on for the sake of his wife and kids back in the Philippines. He had to send money home every month to a family whom he could only see once or twice a year.
In this regard, the Pinoys on cruise ships share the same heartaches as their fellow seafarers, the thousands of Filipino seamen who also account for the largest group of maritime personnel provided by a single country.
For the global maritime industry, the Philippines provides Pinoy seamen numbering over nearly half a million in 2013 alone. These seamen account for over a quarter of the annual dollar remittances of Filipino overseas workers.
Michael Landry, the Hotel Director of the Royal Caribbean cruise ship, Explorer of the Seas, was quoted in a media interview heaping praise on Pinoy workers:
“They have brought to us a work ethic that’s almost without parallel in our experience. They have helped us to build a very tactile close-knit community with our guests because they are very empathetic, very much attuned with how our guests feel and what it takes to make that vacation experience just that more special.”
Landry went on to say that the “Filipino crew’s work ethic, particularly having that empathy needed to ensure that cruise ship guests have an extra special cruise vacation experience,” is what makes Pinoys valuable in an industry that literally sinks or swims on customer satisfaction.
What observers find most remarkable is how Filipinos, epitomized by the cruise ship personnel and the seamen, have earned a reputation for being hardworking, pleasant and well-disciplined as overseas workers — yet we are said to be the complete opposite at home, being the undisciplined pasaway that we regard ourselves and fellow Pinoys.
This has prompted one foreigner to comment: “If only you Filipinos were as hardworking and as disciplined in the Philippines as you are overseas, your country would be as progressive as other countries in Asia.”
Greg B. Macabenta is an advertising and communications man shuttling between San Francisco and Manila and providing unique insights on issues from both perspectives.