Q – We’ve just returned from a cruise on the Oasis of the Seas and some friends we had dinner with told us that they had gotten friendly with their cabin attendant who told them that crew is paid next to nothing and really survives on tips. In this day and age and with minimum wage laws, I wonder if this could be true? Do you have any information on this?

A –  Workers aboard cruise ships are not protected by US laws as they are classified as foreign workers aboard ships that are not registered in the United States. They lack the same Minimum Wage, Health Care, and Working Conditions rights that you and I enjoy as citizens. By every measure they are exploited labor. Janitorial and cleaning staff average about $500 per month. A waiter can make $1,000 per month. They usually work seven days a week. They sleep below decks in bunk bed accommodations but the major cruis elines are good advertisers so we see little int he way of investigative reporting on this issue.

On the other side of the Atlantic, London’s Channel 4 sent a reporter undercover to work for five weeks aboard the Celebrity Eclipse. Celebrity, it should be noted, is the most upscale of the mass market lines and the Eclipse is a new generation ship, so conditions are marginally better than what crew might face on less upscale competitors.

The on-air expose reported that the lowest paid on board workers were receiving about $600 per month or about $2.00 per hour with no gratuities. Most crew members were working seven days a week for six or eight months. Workers are often forced, it was reported, to pay “expensive fees” to the recruitment agencies in their home country that allowed them to obtain their job.

But what about the reporter on this story? What was he paid?

Over five weeks, he earned $375 an hour and he was expected to work sixteen hours each day. This was less than the recruitment agency he used had promised. A story in the Daily Telegraph pointed out that he was charges $700 by the recruitment agency to buy his uniform, get a visa, and take out compulsory medical coverage. He started his work heavily in debt.

The documentary report pointed out, in some detail, exactly why cruise ships flag their ships in certain countries. The Celebrity Eclipse is registered in Malta. There can be no other justification for such registry other than the fact that neither US or British Employment laws apply in Malta. Cruise ships flag their ships to evade minimum wage requirements and other forms of worker protections.

There were areas the story did not have time to investigate. The treatment of workers who are injured ont he job, for example, and their access to US hospitals. Cruise lines will often require that an injured worker be flown home rather than arrange for the best possible treatment available.

And what do the cruise lines respond. They respond in much the same way that Mitt Romney responds to questions about his tax dodges in Grand Cayman and other tax havens. It is all technically within the law.

For a great many consumers, apparently, that is quite good enough.