Rowan Moore, a journalist for The Guardian newspaper in London, used the words “misery machines” in describing giant cruise ships in an opinion piece last Sunday. He writes:

Giant cruise ships look to me like misery machines. They don’t make residents happy in the places they visit. They don’t make their crews happy, if you are to believe the recurring allegations of mistreatment of staff . . .”

I posted the article on Facebook and Twitter. The push back from cruise passengers was instant. “Cruise lines enjoy 93+% customer satisfaction. That’s better than chocolate companies!!” posted a Facebook follower, echoing the common view of cruising from the perspective of cruise fans.

That’s the common reaction on social media whenever I write about the harsh employment conditions which crew members face on cruise ships. Many cruise passengers who read this blog could not care less.

Unfortunately, the same seems to be true when it comes to members of the U.S. Congress. If the problem does not involve a local constituent, most members of Congress will not give you the time of day. The nativist / anti-immigrant mentality promoted by the current administration has made it more difficult to defend the rights of “foreign” (i.e., non-U.S.) crew members who comprise the overwhelming majority of cruise ship employees.

I’ve attended hearings in Washington D.C. regarding the issue of cruise safety where the cruise industry has testified that that 95% of people who cruise have a positive experience. No doubt. Pampered by cabin attendants, waiters and bartenders, cruise guests enjoy the unrealistically inexpensive cruise fares offered by a cruise industry which pays no taxes and escapes U.S. wages and labor regulations by registering their businesses and ships in places like Liberia, Panama and the Bahamas.

As long as the cruise leaves and returns on time and doesn’t break down in between, most cruise guests are not concerned about what happens behind the scenes, whether it is overworked, underpaid and stressed-out crew members or sludge illegally dumped at sea.

No one cares to take a satisfaction survey of crew members.

Life on board a foreign flagged behemoth is no box of chocolates for the crew, despite the high guest satisfaction rating. The Guardian’s “misery machines” expression was the first thing I thought of earlier this week when I read the articles which several readers of this blog sent me about the death of a twenty-two year old Serbian man on the Carnival Fascination.

The man was described as a 22 year-old Serbian man named Nikola Arnautovic.

How unbelievably sad that a young man of only 22 years, just one year younger and one year older than my own two boys, would end his life at such an age.

But anyone who follows the cruise industry knows that suicides of crew members are hardly rare.

A British chef was found hanging in his cabin aboard the Crystal Serenity cruise ship several years ago.  Two weeks earlier, a safety officer on the Disney Dream committed suicide in a similar manner. And the day before that, a woman in Carnival’s entertainment department was found hanging in an officer’s quarters on the Carnival Sensation.

The popular Crew Center website, which first indicated that the recent death on the Carnival Fascination involved a crew member, reported that an Indian dishwasher on the Costa Magica was found hanging in his cabin in February 2017. A galley worker also committed suicide a few years earlier on the Island Princess by hanging.  He reportedly died in the first month of his first contract on the Princess Cruises’ ship. The Crew Center reported that, according to some crew members, he committed suicide because of the “enormous stress and pressure by his supervisors.”

Of course, most crew members do not end their lives by hanging themselves. Most ship employees who choose to end their lives do so by jumping overboard.  During a period of less than three years between December 2009 and October 2012, at least twelve crew members jumped overboard or simply disappeared from cruise ships operated by Royal Caribbean/Celebrity Cruises. I wrote about the problem in an article titled “Is Royal Caribbean Working Its Crew Members to Death?”  The grueling schedule and long hours crew members are required to work 7 days a week, 30 days a month with no days off over the course of a 6 to 10 month contract, for far less than the U.S. minimum wage, often leave ship employees, who are already isolated from their families, exhausted and demoralized.

In the past decade, many dozens of crew members have jumped into the sea. The common reaction by guests is pointlessly “you can’t fall from a cruise ship” as if casting blame on the dead crew member will somehow solve the problem.

Mental health services for cruise ship employees are non-existent. And the  emotional well being of crew members is not a topic that is discussed in the U.S. Few Americans seem concerned with the working conditions on cruise ships faced by citizens of the greater world community. Most U.S. citizens respond to the exploitation of crew members from India or Jamaica with the rationalization that whatever pittance the “foreign” crew members receive is more than the workers can receive back home. “If they don’t like the work, they can quit” is the common saying.

For a U.S. based cruise industry whose mantra is the “safety of our passengers and crew is our highest priority,” there seems to be little genuine expression of such a sentiment when a crew member disappears at sea.

In the last week, yet another crew member disappeared from another cruise ship. He was a Filipino, by the name of  Rezan Monteroso from the M/S Amsterdam. Mr. Monteroso had been aboard the Amsterdam for just 5 days when he went overboard, leaving behind a wife and family with young children.

There are no news articles anywhere mentioning Mr. Monterosa’s name (or the names of dozens of other crew members who have gone overboard before him), or explaining the circumstances surrounding his last days or hours.

Mr. Monterosa’s disappearance seems altogether too familiar – the ship had no automatic man overboard system and the notification to the Coast Guard and ensuing search were unreasonably delayed; there were no discussions about the need for mental health counselling or support from the cruise line following the soon-to-be-forgotten story; HAL reportedly shut off the feeds to the monitors on the ship when the ship finally realized that Ms. Monterosa went overboard, leaving the passengers in the dark as to what happened to the crew member; there seemed to be more guests asking about compensation for the “inconvenience” of a delayed arrival at the next port than any inquiry regarding why the Filipino employee went overboard in the first place. And no one seems to be making any efforts to even discuss making changes to reduce the likelihood of losing additional crew members at sea like this.

As matters now stand, crew members from around the world, from places like Serbia and the Philippines, have little support from the cruise industry and none from the U.S. government. It seems that when crew members jump overboard or hang themselves, the cruise lines couldn’t care less either, as long as it doesn’t affect their customer’s satisfaction rating.

Rest in Peace Mr. Monterosa and Mr. Arnautovic and prayers to your surviving families and friends.

Join the discussion on our Facebook page.

 

Photo credit: M/S Amsterdam – Crew Center

Last year, following a series of hurricanes which struck the Caribbean, FEMA decided to charter the Carnival Fascination to house relief workers in St. Croix. The news was widely reported last October. Carnival cancelled its sailings of the Fascination from October 2017 through January 2018 with the cruise line planning to return the cruise ship to its regular itinerary from San Juan in February 2018.

Carnival touted the deal as demonstrating its humanitarian commitment to the Caribbean relief efforts.

Carnival told the Miami Herald last year that its “history is deeply linked to the Caribbean and our ships have been sailing within the region for more than 45 years. We are pleased to be partnering with Carnival FascinationFEMA on this charter in support of the ongoing relief efforts in the Caribbean.”

I wondered at the time, what type of sharp deal had Carnival obtained at the expense of the U.S. government? This is, after all, a corporation which was incorporated in Panama and registered its fleet of cruise ships in that country to avoid paying U.S. taxes, as well as U.S. safety and labor laws and regulations. So I made a request pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act  (FOIA) to FEMA, which recently responded with a copy of the Carnival-FEMA charter agreement for the Fascination (which you can see below).

The relevant terms are that FEMA agreed to pay Carnival $74,700,000 over the course of 4 months.

The charter agreement includes $39,700,000 (million) plus “costs” of $35,000,000 (million) for a total of $74,000,000 (million).

This is a whopping amount, even compared to the CCL-FEMA deal made back in 2005 when FEMA paid $192,000,000 to charter the Carnival Sensation, Carnival Ecstasy and Carnival’s Holiday for 6 months, plus $44,000,000 for fuel and other expenses, following hurricane Katrina.

FEMA was criticized for paying a total of $236,000,000 for the three Carnival ship over the course of six months, an amount which the Washington Post called an “exhorbitant price.” The Post commented that if the ships were at capacity for six months, the price per evacuee would total over twice what an average passenger would pay which “would include entertainment and the cost of actually making the ship move.”

In the current CCL-FEMA charter, FEMA agreed to pay what turns out to be $18,675,000 a month for the Fascination; whereas in 2005, it paid an average of only $13,111,111 a month for each Carnival ship.

That’s over $5,500,000 a month more than what FEMA paid back in 2005 for each of the other three Carnival ships, even though the Ecstasy and the Sensation are essentially identical to the Fascination. All are Fantasy class ships with the same number of lower berths (2,056). The Holiday, which is no longer in Carnival’s fleet, had a lower capacity of lower berths (1452).

Most states in the U.S. have anti-gouging laws following hurricanes when a state of emergency has been declared. But post-hurricane gouging appears to be business as usual for Carnival.

In 2005, following hurricane Katrina, the cruise trade organization, CLIA, requested that the U.S. Treasury Department exempt Carnival from paying income tax on the cruise ships it chartered to FEMA, even though the ships were moored in U.S. waters during the entire charter, making them clearly subject to U.S. taxes. In this case with the Fascination, the cruise ship is moored in St. Croix, which is a U.S. territory where citizens are expected to pay U.S. taxes. The monies paid to Carnival for the current charter of the Fascination also should be subject to U.S. taxes. Carnival undoubtedly will seek a similar exemption from the taxes which are owing.

After the charter, the Fascination will undergo a two-week dry dock from February 4 to 17, 2018, in Freeport, Bahamas, prior to resuming its regular seven-day cruises from San Juan, Puerto Rico, beginning February 18, 2018. Carnival plans to install a Guy’s Burger Joint, Blue Iguana Cantina, Red Frog Rum Bar, Blue Iguana Tequila Bar, Cherry On Top, Bonsai Sushi Express, and the Alchemy Bar during the extensive and expensive renovation.

If you decide to sail on the Fascination next month, be sure to thank the U.S. government when you enjoy a beer and burger in the new bars and restuarants on the ship which will essentially be paid for from the excessive price of the no-bid contract with the federal government, which probably will not charge Carnival any U.S. taxes either.

I reached out to Carnival for a comment but have heard nothing to date.

Have a thought? Please leave a comment below or join the discussion on our Facebook page.

Photo credit: Verybigfish86 (talk) – Public Domain, commons / wikimedia.

Carnival -FEMA Contract by jim walker on Scribd

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