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A cruise ship graciously entering port has become the quintessential image of luxury, but below deck it's a story of apartheid at sea.

Workers from poor countries are suffering conditions reminiscent of Asia's export processing zones.

These are the findings of a new report Sweatships – What It's Really Like to Work on Board Cruise Ships, joint-produced by campaigning charity War on Want and the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF).

It offers a rare insight into a secretive multi-billion dollar industry that took 12 million people on holiday last year with over 700,000 of these from the UK, according to the Cruise Information Service.

Key players in the industry are Carnival Corporation, Royal Caribbean, P&O Princess Cruises and Malaysia's Star Cruises, which own over half the total number of cruise vessels. The industry is growing at such a rate that 41 extra cruise ships are on order between now and 2005 that will provide 80,000 new berths for pleasure-seekers.

But the fruits of this growth will not benefit those working below deck, as the report shows that as ships get bigger the passenger to crew ration will grow from 2:1 to 3:1 in a bid to cut costs.

The 'Sweatships' report describes how some cruise liners have become a floating hell for thousands of workers. Below deck, hundreds of workers from Eastern Europe, Asia and Latin America staff engine rooms, laundries, kitchens and restaurants. Wages can be as low as US$45 per month for waiters and waitresses and contracts are short and insecure.

An ITF survey of 400 cruise ship employees showed that 95 per cent are working seven days a week with time off restricted to turnaround in port. Over a third surveyed worked up to 12 hours a day while just under a third worked up to 14 hours. Holidays are not included during the contract period. Instead, workers return home and wait for two or three months for the next contract.

After interviewing cruise ship workers in Florida and the UK, the report's author Celia Mather believes some cruise companies have a lot to answer for. "Many ships are a floating microcosm of the worst excesses of globalisation. Long hours, poor pay and a culture of fear cast a dark shadow over the five star experience of passengers above deck," she says.

The report goes on to describe widespread authoritarian and aggressive behaviour by managers and supervisors as well as rampant favouritism. Discipline comes in the form of on-the-spot fines or being moved to heavy work where tips are poor.

In more extreme cases can be instant dismissal and repatriation home. One anonymous Carnival employee told researchers: "There's no one to appeal to - they just send you home. You have no chance to go to the company office. They just put you on the plane." The ITF also has cases of crew members being removed from the ship in handcuffs by private security personnel and held in a hotel before being flown home.

The culture of fear that surrounds this hierarchy has led to numerous accusations of sexual harassment against those in authority on board. In 1999, a lawsuit forced Carnival cruises to reveal that a hundred accusations of rape and sexual assault were made in just five years.

Many workers often borrow from family or money-lenders at high interest rates to pay up to US$2,000 in agents fees to secure the job. Despite this, workers rarely abscond de to the secretive and restrictive recruitment process operated by crewing agents in poor countries.

A secret film made in Spring 2001 by the ITF on board the Cypriot-owned Joywave cruise liner revealed the true extent of the horrors for workers. There were only two showers and one working toilet for a hundred men and women crewmembers and staff had to sleep six to each tiny cabin containing only three bunks. Jim Given, director of the ITF's Cruise Ship Campaign said: I thought I'd seen it all, but I've never seen living conditions as bad as these. It was absolutely pathetic - four hundred seafarers with no life in their eyes."

Campaigner Nick Dearden from War on Want said: We are especially concerned about the impact of poor pay and working conditions on those workers from the developing world who often see work on cruise ships as a dream job which can lift their families out of poverty. We are asking people to put pressure on cruise companies to outlaw practices like charging developing world workers deposits just to get their jobs in the first place - a practise which reduces some of the poorest workers on the ship to virtual bonded labourers.

"We believe people booking a holiday want their money to pay for those workers who actually make their holiday possible, not just enriching the increasingly powerful tourist conglomerates that control the industry," said Nick.