No longer lost at sea: Cruise line payroll gets modernized

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Payroll needs can be tricky — especially on the open seas, where cruise staffers often have to go through several expensive steps to cash out their paychecks.

To deal with inconsistent access to money and the internet while at sea, crew members often have their pay transferred to family members when the ship reaches its port, resulting in bottlenecks at transfer agents in hot and humid Caribbean locales.

Remitly, a Seattle-based remittance company, is working on an initiative to get around the limitations of internet connections that support e-payment access while at sea.

"It can be hard to stand outside at port with cash or a payroll card in hand to make a remittance payment," said Shivaas Gulati, co-founder of Remitly. "And the agents may charge up to 7% to 10% because they know the workers don't have a lot of other options."

Cruise ships hire workers for a variety of jobs; in addition to crew, ships hire musicians, bartenders, retail clerks, casino operators and child care workers. Staff are usually employed for a contract of about six months, with pay frequency varying by ship line

Most cruise line operators are American, but the ships are registered in other countries, creating payroll compliance complexities. Remitly is focused on improving digital access to payroll, payments and remittance for ship workers.

WiFi access for ships is better than passenger aircraft, but is still spotty and varies widely. While it's not unheard of for crew to have internet access on ships, they may still have to pay fees for going online. Even after paying, crew members may not get the same quality of internet that passengers do.

Remitly plans to study how WiFi is enabled at sea to build a system that supports WiFi access that's more standard and readily available while a ship is not at port, according to Gulati. "What we're trying to do is get around the limitations of these connections," he said, adding there isn't a short-term deadline for the project.

The initiative touches on a couple of areas in which payment technology is rapidly changing. Fintechs are attracted to the gig economy, or the expansion of freelancers and contractors as mobile apps such as Uber become a larger player in the economy.

In most cases, the innovation is aimed at allowing workers to receive and reallocate salaries more frequently than the traditional two-week payroll cycle. Just last week, Intuit updated Quickbooks to speed payroll for gig economy workers.

Remitly recently passed the $5 billion mark in annualized volume and made Australia its fourth send country (after the U.S., U.K. and Canada). Like many payment companies, it faces challenges in supporting payments while users are in transit.

Most of the initiatives across the payment industry are designed to enable acceptance and processing before the plane or ship reaches its destination. Airlines have been gradually adding support for on-board payments over the past several years, and Wirecard just reached a deal with Genting to enable onboard checkout for passengers while ships are at sea.

"Any internet access at sea is dependent via satellite transmission from the ship's antenna to sky and back to land networks, so these signals can become temporarily blocked depending on antenna location on ship as well as remote locations where sometimes, close to shore where there may be mountains or steep cliffs, service can be disrupted," said Raymond Pucci, associate director of research and consulting services for Mercator Advisory Group. "So payments rely on quick and reliable transmission, which is not always certain in instances like this."

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Online payments Mobile payments Payroll