While working as an entertainer on a cruise ship, I often sat in one of the many distinguished seats on board that reflected my status. This time, the seat was an exercise bicycle in the passenger gym. Most of the crew members are prohibited from using such equipment, but as an entertainer I am required to maintain a "healthy look," or at least assure that I can squeeze into my costumes after months of "required" five-star dining with the passengers, yet another distinguished privilege as a crew member.
While pedaling on the exercise bike a crew member named Frevi walked over to say hello after cleaning the drinking fountain and loading the fridge with damp towels for the passengers. I slowed my speed.
"Hey Frevi, how's it going?" I asked.
"Not good." Frevi shared that she had been expecting her much needed vacation in March. Instead, her agency had not found a replacement yet and required her to stay for an additional two months. One year of the same mundane activities. One year of cleaning bathrooms for a meager wage. One year without a single day off.
"I'm tired, Jess. I want to go home." She was on the verge of crying but laughed instead. All I could offer were my prayers that a replacement was found.
She went back to stocking the fridge. I pedaled harder than anticipated.
Having sensed the juxtaposition of these luxurious, pleasure-filled vessels with their dark secrets hidden below deck, I began researching. Not to my surprise, there wasn't a lot of information on the subject. The cruise industry was doing a wonderful job at keeping this form of exploitation hidden from the public eye. However, what I did find was a small group of creative individuals from the Servants to Asia's Urban Poor community in Vancouver, BC who dressed as "Pirates for Justice" and paraded down to the docks with others in the neighborhood to raise awareness of the exploitation of crew members on cruise ships.
I immediately contacted the "pirates" and confirmed that these dirty deeds were indeed happening around me every day. I started mailing pictures that fellow crew members had taken of their daily lives along with personal stories and interviews conducted with a few brave employees to be used in a photography exhibition presented in churches and galleries around Vancouver.
Listening to those exploited by the cruising industry, we discover lives filled with long working hours, little pay, and substandard living conditions. As Christians, we are called to live a life that seeks justice. Each one of us are placed in specific situations that may expose us to the cries of the oppressed. Are we willing to hear the cry and seek God's justice?
Jessica Liegh is a professional actress with a B.A. in Musical Theatre from Point Park University who is currently interning with Servants to Asia's Urban Poor. As a previous cruise ship performer, she is now seeking ways to creatively raise awareness to the surrounding issues. To learn more about life below decks, read the "Sweatships" report joint-produced by campaigning charity War on Want and the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) or check out their Facebook campaign here.