“Cocaine, prostitutes, unscrupulous captains, kickbacks, bribery, violent, sexually deviant and mentally unstable owners, alcoholism everywhere you look and life threateningly dangerous working practices are an accepted everyday occurrence in this industry.” Said my friend to me as she tried to explain why she was giving up a blossoming and incredibly lucrative career in yachting to go back to London and slave away behind the stoves again for a lousy 30K.
“But give it a chance mate, you’re only 2 years in. You’ll get used to it. And what about the perks, the travel, the expenses paid for, the enormous tax free salary? Another 5 years and you could have the capital to open your own place! You’d be mad to through that away.”
But she was through; I could see it in her eyes. One too many times having abuse hurled at her by the boss’s wife/girlfriend/hooker du jour. One too many 20 hour working days in the galley. “Hours of rest! That’s a joke. Yeah I did see that form once at the end of the month when I was told to sign it by the first officer. I did’nt realize I had had it so easy.”
So my question is this, why do we in the industry put up with such practices? Practices that if they were discovered to be taking place in any business on dry land in any civilized country would easily result in a prosecution and quite possibly the closure of that business.
I understand that it’s not always like that. There are many yachts out there that have the highest standards and morels when it comes to employee rights. That treats their crew fairly and have owners who positively encourage them to develop their careers in the yachting industry. Indeed I have worked on boats like that myself. But in all honesty, the longer I am in this industry, the more and more I come in to contact with people who have been royally screwed over while working onboard a yacht. Why is this accepted? And why when I relay these stories to industry veterans do I always get the same shrug and “welcome to yachting” response?
Surely there must be some legal recourse or protection for employees who work onboard yachts? I mean, it is tricky. You are talking about working on a vessel that will most likely be registered in a small country far away from all the usual legal employee rights and support networks that one is used to and expects back home. Also, who are you working for? You are probably not employed directly by the owner but by the vessel or maybe a holding company that is based in another different country from where the yacht is registered. Or maybe you are just casual and getting paid cash in hand every week.
I have a friend who, like me, is not someone to take something lying down and when she was fired (unfairly in her opinion) , she didn’t just take it and move on thinking to herself “oh well, welcome to yachting.” Instead, she complained. She said to the captain, “this is not fair what you have done to me. I have certain rights under my contract of employment, and you are trying to trample all over them. You have fired me unfairly and with no notice period. I am entitled to a notice period and also accrued holiday pay to be paid to me or to work my notice period.” Now I have been involved in a similar dispute at home in the UK a few years ago with an employer who seemed to think that because he was the head of a large wealthy company and I was just a lowly chef, he could treat me as he pleased and not pay me what I had rightfully been entitled to. Fortunately for me, I was able to go to the citizen’s advice bureau and for no charge, they took over all the legal letter writing and soon enough I was paid what I was owed.
My friend in yachting unfortunately does not have the same support. Five months down the line, my friend is still in dispute with this yacht and going through a very stressful time of it. The captain (a very blunt instrument) has just shooed her away saying in not so many words that he can do what he wants and does not have to pay her one cent. He has also become increasingly aggressive and threatening in the tone of his emails. Having found that she is clearly bashing her head against a brick wall there, she decided that the natural next step would be to contact the yachts management company. This is a company that if you are in the industry you will know well and that seemingly prides itself on its professionalism and how it treats the crew that it represents. They briefly feigned shock and concern at the situation and promised to look into it. The end result from them was that they would not pay anything without the approval of the captain and sorry and goodbye and good luck. Exactly who does this guy answer to? Is he a law unto himself? Her next step was to contact the employment tribunal in the country that the yacht was registered, in this case Isle Of Man. Surely the yacht must have to adhere to the employment laws of the country where it is registered? Well not according to Isle Of Man who stated that because the employee in question was not residing in Isle of Man then she is not protected by said laws. What now? She was then referred to the ships registry on Isle Of Man and has been in contact with them for nearly 2 months now. They have been acting as intermediary between herself and the captain but it seems to be going nowhere as the captain is stonewalling and the registry do not seem to have any power over a yacht that is half way around the world. Of course during all this, the owner of the yacht will be completely unaware of what is going on. He would probably be quite shocked to hear how one of his employees is being treated. Maybe that is the key. The owners should be made more accountable and more responsible for how crew are treated. But I don’t see how that would be enforceable. They are so protected by the yacht management companies and the captains that they can seemingly get away with anything.
Being ‘Fired’, in yachting, is not as bad as it sounds. Back at home, it is fairly difficult to get fired as you are so protected by employment laws. There is a disciplinary process which you have to go through. Verbal warnings, written etc. There are a lot of second chances given and unless you turn up to work high on crack, naked and carrying automatic weapons, then you probably won’t get fired outright.
In yachting however, if the owner takes a dislike to the shape of your eyebrows, then it’s sayonara, or if the owner prefers the welldone steak he asked for to be pink in the middle then adios amigo. So lots of yachties have been fired and its not something to be ashamed of. Generally speaking, the practice if someone is fired from the yacht, is that they are “paid off”. Their services are no longer required and they are certainly no longer welcome onboard as the owner never wants to set eyes on them again, so they are paid a fair notice period and any accrued holiday pay and a handshake and they are on their way. As I said above, you can’t do that at home. If you tried to do that to an employee at home you would more than likely end up in court and then end up paying out a large unfair dismissal settlement.
If I am honest, I can never see the yachting industry adopting (or should I say enforcing) such employee rights laws, and I am not sure if it would be a good thing either. Sometimes it is not a bad thing to be kicked off a boat with 6 weeks extra pay and a fresh start. But there does need to be some sort of protection for crew against captains and owners who just try to rip crew off with the knowledge that they will more than likely get away with it.
As I write this piece it reminds me of a captain that I once worked for for 1 day in the South of France. Two things come to mind about that experience. The first being that I was employed as chef along with another guy as bosun and we were both trialing for the job on the same day. The captain picked us up from crew house in Antibes and we drove together to the yacht which was in a small marina near Imperia in Italy. We did our trials successfully, me cooking amazing food and the bosun…um…doing some amazing bosuning. On the drive back to Antibes having both been offered jobs to start in a couple of days the bosun was in conversation with our new captain and was chatting about his time on another yacht and how he had been unfairly treated and had subsequently sought the help of the appropriate authorities to settle his dispute with the yacht. This was a friendly conversation and just an anecdote provided by the bosun to pass the time during our drive home. It was all smiles as we were dropped off and we were to be picked up the next Monday ready to start work. The next Monday came, and as I waited outside crew house to be picked up I wandered where the bosun was as it was already past our arranged pick up time and he had yet to turn up. In due course, the captain arrived and told me to jump in the car. I did so and off we sped. “Where is the bosun” I asked the captain. Oh, he said, after our conversation in the car the other day I decided not to employ him. “One wrong step with that one and I’ll end up in court.” He said. So some captains do fear the law, they just fire you preemptively.
The second memory from that yacht was from the same day. As we drove to the yacht minus one bosun, all was fine and I was instructed by the captain that, upon arrival, I should first unpack and organize my cabin. Then he would do some familiarization of the yacht with me and then I could start in the galley and get cooking. It was 1 pm when the captain got a call from the owner. He came to see me in the galley looking very sorry for himself. It turned out that the owner had called him to say that he would not be using the boat for another month so in order to save money, the captain was instructed to let me go but also to say that my job was there for me in a months time. I think the captain felt worse than I did, he was so embarrassed. He gave me €100 for the days work and drove me back to crew house (which was now full).
That was not a great experience for me but its just another example of an owner being so detached from the day to day operations of a yacht that they are making decisions that have real negative impact on peoples lives at the drop of a hat. That said, if I hadn’t been ‘fired’ from that job then I would not have ended up on my next yacht which was fantastic and one of the best times of my life.
I know you have only been reading the last one thousand nine hundred and eighty eight very boring words in anticipation of all the drugs and prostitutes and violence that I mentioned at the top and that you hope I am going to write about. Hook, line and sinker.
I think 2000 words is about my maximum concentration span when it comes to writing, especially as I am fast coming to the end of the bottle of rose that I opened at the start of this piece. I will write about the hookers and the drugs soon, but not now. I started off this piece with the serious intention of trying to put across how perilous it is as a crew member in this industry. Apart from all the firings and unfair treatment, it is also very easy to die working on a boat. That is also something that I mentioned at the top, the unsafe work practices onboard some yachts. Again, for another time.
Not wanting to end negatively, this is a great industry to work in and I am writing this on the beach watching the sun set over the south Pacific (to be specific). So at the moment I really can’t complain. I was hoping to throw up some questions and a bit of a debate about yachting as an industry. And also I was just experimenting with writing again just to see how it goes. All your comments are most welcome and I would love to hear from people of all industries. All questions will be answered (maybe not correctly).
Desperately trying to think of a light hearted and humorous way to end this piece but can’t so I will just continue on my previous theme a.k.a the monkey egg coconut debacle. Question from small child in the Asian section of Carrefour supermache: “If a coconut is a monkey egg then what is in this tin of coconut milk?”
Answers on a postcard.