Why are third officers being paid less than coffee shop workers?

I recently came across a job advert for a third officer by one of the UK’s major maritime industry recruiters, Faststream Recruitment. The advert offers the successful candidate “the opportunity to work with a leading cruise company, experience global travel, and enjoy an attractive package with lots of future possibilities,” sounds great right?

In return, Faststream’s cruise ship operating client asks for “experience in this rank on any type of passenger vessel,” an “Officer of the watch CoC unlimited,” and “the legal right to live and work in the EU.” This all seemed perfectly reasonable to me, and a great opportunity for a junior officer, until I saw the salary.

“The client will offer the successful candidates up to $16,000 per year with a 4:2 rotation.”

$16,000. Let that sink in.

At today’s exchange rate that equates to a UK salary of £12,613. For a third officer. With experience in rank. For a leading cruise ship operator.

If you assume that the successful candidate will work around 12 hours per day for the eight months they are on board, that equates to around £4.33 per hour. The minimum wage in the UK for an 18-21 year old is £6.15 per hour. The minimum wage for an under 18 year old in the UK is £4.35 per hour.

So that we are crystal clear, a leading cruise operator is attempting to employ EU deck officers for less money than an employer in the UK can legally pay a child. When I saw this I assumed it was a typo and, through the magic of LinkedIn asked the team to verify.

Faststream’s recruitment manager told me: “The pay advised on the advert is correct. This position is working with a leading and very well established company – and with this opportunity they are offering an entry into the cruise industry”.

These officers are professionally qualified navigators and will be legally responsible for the safe navigation of a multimillion dollar asset and the lives of thousands of people. It takes a minimum of three years and a combination of practical training, academic study, and sea-going experience to obtain an unlimited Officer of the Watch Certificate of Competency. Even after all of the training, there is no guarantee that a cadet will obtain their officer’s ticket. In the UK, and across the EU, we maintain exceptionally high standards for the certification of seafarers and those who cannot prove their competence simply don’t get a license.

There is a great deal of skill and creative flair that goes into brewing good coffee. For the sake of reference, a leading coffee shop in the UK pays its entry level staff an average of £7.00 per hour. But the skills required and the level of responsibility involved in navigating a merchant ship versus making my morning macchiato cannot be compared. So how is it that the officers on board these particular ships are being paid less than my local barista? I’m no stranger to the employment economics of our global shipping industry, and that UK and European seafarers must compete in an international market. During my time at sea, I was lucky enough to sail with officers from all over the world; Russia, the Philippines, Ukraine, Indonesia, India, Poland, and Croatia to name a few. We always swapped stories about pay and conditions during long hours on the bridge. I never met any seafarer who bore the responsibility of stripes on their shoulders earning a wage as low as what’s on offer here.

Though morally questionable in my opinion, Faststream and their client are not doing anything illegal here. The salary on offer from this job comes in above the minimum wage of a number of EU countries, some of which have no lower pay limit. An irrelevant point, because EU minimum wages have no bearing on what happens at sea. But it also comes in just above the recommended $1,822 a month minimum wage for a third officer set by ITF, ISF and ILO as part of the Maritime Labour Convention. However, comparing what’s on offer here to the minimum international standards completely misses the point. When I think of the minimum standards set by MLC, I picture rusty bulk carriers operated by anonymous and unscrupulous owners who spend their days treading the thin line between costs and safety. I don’t picture cruise ships carrying thousands of unwitting passengers.

When all is said and done, this is a safety issue. When a leading cruise ship operator is willing to devalue critical skills by paying the officers stood on deck, who bear responsibility for the safety of passengers and crew, a paltry $16,000, it makes a mockery of all of the important work done by industry to improve safety at sea in recent decades. If any ship operator is willing to cut a corner this important‍‍‍, it makes you wonder where else they are cutting corners. Further, I wonder how safe the passengers on board would feel if they knew that the officers responsible for navigating their ship were paid less than the taxi or bus driver that took them to the airport?

Unfortunately, I have no doubt that the roles will be filled. Across Europe, there are enough qualified junior officers scrabbling for work that doesn’t exist to fill these roles many times over, even at this insulting salary. I believe wholeheartedly in free-market economics and that, above certain minimum standards, an employee’s salary should be determined by supply and demand. But in this case, I believe the cruise operator is shortsightedly sourcing officers well below the market rate. Sooner or later, markets always correct themselves. In our industry, those corrections tend to come after catastrophic events. It is a repeating pattern I’ve seen play out many times; a ship operator sources the cheapest possible labour, they struggle with crew retention and quality, near misses increase but go unreported, eventually, something happens; lives are lost, oil is spilled, or a ship founders.

I am lucky enough to often be asked to speak at events or privately brief clients on the future of the industry. A consistent question comes up wherever I go; how do we attract the next generation of talent and give them the skills to succeed? It’s a simple question and I believe it has a simple answer. Hire good people, train them well, and most importantly treat them well. You don’t need to pay people filmstar wages to retain them, but you do need to pay them a wage that reflects their skills and the gravity of the responsibility they hold. I hope for their own sake, and for the sake of the passengers and crew in their charge, that Faststream and their client realise the error of their ways before irreparable harm is done to the industry.

Nick Chubb

Nick Chubb is the founder of maritime innovation consultancy Thetius.


    1. You have to fair,incl in the wage is all food paid during your stay on board as well.
      However this 3 off wage seem a bit low.
      My time is up,retired ?

  1. To a certain extend, that is also the reason of low working quality/ bad management. I have another example for shore position (offer received from a major shipmanagement company).

    Position that was advertised was vessel superintendent. Final offer came to my email was GBP 25,000.-/year gross with progression to GBP 27,000/year gross after 1 year.

    I replied that, offer is unacceptable and low. PIC said that: “I know many people that work/ live in London with less that GBP 20,000.-/ year.”
    Of course, I replied “Go ahead and hire one of them”

    PS. Once people start to decline such offers, then salaries will go a bit higher. If there are people that accept to work with such low income then….

  2. That is ridiculous, I was earning that back in the ’70’s as Third Mate, this yet another example of people being exploited during the race to the bottom, ever lower and lower fares in order to compete in an over crowded market. Though why anyone wants to sail on a ship where the cargo complains I don’t know

  3. Having spent 37 years with the Canadian Coast Guard as a ship’s officer including executive officer, then Fleet, Ice and Safety Superintendent,
    I presume this cruise company pays lip service to their Safety Management System, Bridge Management and other legal requirements per IMO and Shipping acts.
    I would be nervous taking a cruise with them.

  4. Unfortunately, they’re not looking for someone from the UK to take on such a position. This type of job posting is being directly offered and sought after someone who is from a much lower GDP nation (Think the Ukraine or the Philippines). What is disingenuous is that faststream knows that their client is deliberately putting a price floor for the kind of mariner that they are looking for. An American or British merchant mariner wouldn’t dare take such a job because it would be financial suicide (Unless one was financially well-off and wanted the experience). But a Ukrainian or Philippine licensed officer? When the GDP per capita of your country is approximately ~£2000, a billet making £16K sounds like a fantastic opportunity.

    1. For those that think because room and board are included that this person will bank 16k a year must be assuming that the 3/O has no family back home that has a mortgage/rent and needs to eat. I have many expenses that are not paid by the company just to get to the ship.

  5. If a 3rd Officer is only on $ 16k then how much are the bar staff and coffee shop on board these reputable First Class cruise liners being paid (knowing that bar staff are also getting tips)? Food for thought.
    Also, how much are the recruiters fees for such a position?

  6. Nowhere in this lengthy tale of woe did I see any mention of room and board – which I assume must be part of the third officer’s employment contract. And while I have no idea of the quality of crew accommodations on cruise ships, the food is reputed to be above average. So what this boils down to is that after a year’s employment virtually without personal expenses, the officer will have nearly $16,000 in the bank — unless he is a gambler or some other kind of irresponsible wastrel. Continue that for a few years, and he will have a handsome nest egg to show for a fairly short career, better than a lot of people.
    The author also contradicts himself in advocating for higher wages to attract “quality” applicants, while admitting that the supply of applicants is huge.
    So where’s the problem?

    1. 16000usd for being away 8months a year and working 12hours a day is not a good salary for western european standards. It might be different for other nationalities where the costs of living are significantly lower. Also the author didn’t contradict himself: There is in fact a huge number of seafarers with an oow certificate, but some are more qualified than others.

    2. $16,000 is far far below the minimum wage that this job is being advertised in. I wouldnt even be able to pay my rent with that kind of money. If this was for some unskilled job ashore, it would still not be enough. The 3rd officer will have important responsibilities over peoples lives such as the passengers and crew they work with. Not only that, the skills learned to perform that job have taken time and expense. This wage is a slap in the face of the industry and I think Faststream should not be entertaining such employers.

  7. Very good article, but quite depressing to read when you’re just about to get your OOW unlimited after years of laborious studies. I always had an interest for cruise ships but it looks like I’ll have to go work in offshore. No wonder so many people from my university end up just working on land and never going at sea. Western european seafarers are simply too expensive for the cruise ship industry.

  8. I find it amazing that some commenters here are ‘miffed’ that these ungrateful slobs that go to sea for a living are not thankful they have a bed to sleep in and food to eat while committing their entire life to a floating prison for 8 to 9 months or more at a time.
    (Read ”Two Year’s Before the Mast” By Dana)

    They likely also think these same wretches should fly themselves half way around the globe in order to secure such a great job!?

    In an industry where there are more than a few ships that have crews that are working without receiving wages at all and vessels that are abandoned entirely by their owners, is it really any surprise that the ”good” jobs are offering wages less than your neighborhood Barista??

    Not to me.

    I go aboard ships routinely (in liner service to my port) where I have seen the entire crew changed out regularly in a relatively short period of time in what I assume is an effort to lower crew costs as much as possible. If I understand it right, it goes from Chinese, to Indonesians, to Eastern Europeans. At least that’s the ‘model’ I have seen first hand.

    Is it any wonder our industry wants robot ships that have no crews? How wonderful that would be for low ball ship owners!

  9. Totally agree with Wim. And we should add : 12 hours of work a day is just a joke ! I’d be pretty much interested to read what are these hours made of. Having been a long time at sea as a third, second, first officer, I have my own idea.

  10. Well done Nick in raising this issue, asking questions and daring to actually look inwards at the industry. The next issue of the Seafarers Happiness Index is in the process of evaluation, and this exact problem is one that has reared its head. Which means this is very, very far from an isolated incident. Time again, junior officers said that they feel their wages are too low…and that while the leap in money is high when they reach senior status, they doubt they will be around to ever see that. Which means we are in very real danger of losing swathes of experienced young officers. This is potentially suicidal for the industry. The fact that some commentators on here would say that food and board are a substitute for cash have clearly never tried to have a mortgage, car, phone, family or life…

    1. For those that think because room and board are included that this person will bank 16k a year must be assuming that the 3/O has no family back home that has a mortgage/rent and needs to eat. I have many expenses that are not paid by the company just to get to the ship.

  11. “The shiny QA policy signers” will likely tell : “they are inexperienced junior officers” however that is not preventing most of those dedicated in “exercising due diligence” managements to “entrust”/ allow such “INEXPERIENCE” to be DELEGATED as SAFETY OFFICERs on “their”/or better say entrusted to them ?!? valuable assets.

    1. Firstly, when the seafarer joins vessel as a 3rd offr, he/she is the junior most navigational watch keeping Officer. Earning USD 2000 per month on a cruise liner and getting experience which will further enhance your career, is a pretty good deal. Every 3rd Officer ends up being the Master at a later stage and time spent as junior officers are in effect training for the next rank and consequently an increase in wages. So comparing an officer on a ship to a person working in a coffee shop is pointless. I am not familiar with cruiseliner wages, but I guess it should be around $15000 per month.

  12. A 3rd off on cruise is not like the one on cargo ships. 3rd off for this industry is more like a cadet, a very entry level ,placed there to learn ,to do small jobs and to prove that one day he will be able to take his senior off responsability,the one of sailing the vessel with ” soo many souls” onboard. Don,t worry,can go relaxed on a cruise, your third off is not alone on the Bridge,he is backed by a senior officer in charge with navigation and he has no responsability on ships manouver,stability,flotability etc.

  13. From personal experience (3rd officer earning 2000$ per month working 310hrs minimum) I can honestly say that it is a crazy position to be in. With an hourly rate barely creeping in at £3.80, it made the whole escapade nigh on worthless (it can only work if you don’t have any bills such as rent racking up back at home whilst you are at sea). It was an experience but needless to say not sustainable whilst you wait for the promised career progression (initial interview advised 2 contracts of 4 months each, whereas reality demonstrated 4 to 6 being the norm). This is a very long time to try and get by on a pittance and the “leaps” in wages meant that in reality it would not become sustainable or truly viable until rank of 1st officer was achieved with wages of 6000$ per month. Remember you want to also be able to plan for the future and set money aside etc. Needless to say after careful deliberation, I have left the profession behind.

  14. The advert asks for experience in rank on passenger vessel, but the recruitment manager justifies the low salary by saying that “they are offering an entry into the cruise industry”. Anybody who has the experience in rank surely has already made an entry into the cruise industry.

  15. I’m astonished that this salary is offered, and I wonder whether this may be a typo?
    I started my career (after OOW qualification) as a 4th Officer for a major cruise line. I was on a rotation of 4 months on 2 months off more than 20 years ago and my annual salary was just short of £20,000 per year (tax free). If the salary has decreased by £7500 over 20 years later, and it is genuine, then I believe it to be travesty!

Back to top button