While odds and ends are occasionally stolen from guests on cruise ships—be it from crew or other passengers—there is definitely a lot of thievery going on. But it’s not what you think and not by whom you suspect: your waiter.
THE TRUTH ABOUT THEFT ON CRUISE SHIPS
The shortage of necessary materials in a cruise ship dining room is a serious issue, but for objectively sound reasons. Each waiter is assigned a specific amount of silverware and a single rack to hold it. Fanatically guarding your silver is a matter of course on Carnival ships, and every rack is profoundly labeled. Because names are extremely confusing on ships—courtesy of 60-some nationalities aboard—many draw pictures instead. As the only American waiter in the fleet, I drew the Stars & Stripes, which may or may not have been more intimidating than my colleague who covered his rack with superbly drawn, realistically creepy bats.
Anyone caught ‘borrowing’ from a waiter’s soiled rack during mealtime faced a severe reprimand. Anyone caught ‘pinching’ clean silver risked decapitation. At the end of the first seating, waiters would rush their silver to the dishwasher and refuse to leave until the precious cargo was fully cleaned and accounted for. Those who simply hadn’t the time for such protection were forced to rely on the goodwill of the dishwashers to keep prying hands away. Needless to say, dishwashers enjoyed a healthy gratuity for ensuring such goodwill. We waiters did not begrudge them, as our less-than minimum wage was generous compared to a dishwasher’s salary.
At first, I was disgusted with Carnival’s apparent inability to supply their employees with the necessary equipment to properly perform their duties. Every station was required to have X number of saucers, water glasses, wine glasses, silverware, side plates, coffee cups, etc. Yet there was simply never enough of any of these items. Yet absurdly, a nightly inventory was required and all items were displayed openly upon the tables for counting. Specialty items in particularly high demand were exposed for anyone to steal. Butter dishes were particularly special items, because the guests pinched them, too. So after all that hard work serving guests, waiters endured unpaid guard duty over their stations while waiting for the manager to OK their station. After being okayed and departing, thieving packs of waiters descended upon abandoned stations to gather what they needed for their own inspection. For, to pass the inventory, a waiter was REQUIRED to steal from another who had already been designated as fully stocked. A nasty consequence of this was that waiters arrived at their stations an hour early—off the clock—to steal it back. Or as much as they could, anyway. The whole thing was bizarre, and completely inimical to the cruise line’s insatiable and unrealistic demands for superior service.
And menus? When they were unlocked by a manager the resulting rush would crush less durable employees. The big guys were frequently paid off by the smaller to obtain the precious, understocked menus—paid off or bribed in some manner, which could just as easily include performing laundry services or sex services. While a waiter, I was one of the bigger guys—I’m a corn-fed Midwestern boy, after all—but all deals with my surrounding, pretty waitress neighbors merely involved rolling silverware, more’s the pity.
Only after observing the restaurant staff did I begin to understand Carnival Cruise Lines’ policy. The attitude of most waiters was one of extreme indifference towards property. Breakage was exceptionally high because no one cared about the cost. Carnival was a billion-dollar sweat-shop, so why should an over-worked, under-paid waiter care if he dropped a cup? But twenty-plus broken cups a night on twenty-plus ships added up in a hurry! By demanding that each station be equipped completely and enforcing it nightly, Carnival threw the responsibility right back onto the waiters. Breakage was thusly low. Frustration thusly high.
Any waiter wanting to get tipped by all his guests—really his only money for the whole cruise—had to focus on preventing breakage. How else can you make happy twenty-six guests simultaneously demanding coffee when you only have ten cups and eight saucers? Despite your best efforts, preparation and/or bribery and/or pinching-on-the-go was mandatory. Yet even legitimate accidents did not guarantee replacement of necessary equipment. The system was brutal but effective; a metaphor for all things at sea.
Former cruise line employee Brian David Bruns is author of the greatest-selling cruise book in history, Cruise Confidential. Four books in all, the Cruise Confidential series has won over a dozen awards, both in the U.S. and overseas, and been featured on ABC’s 20/20 on two separate occasions.