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

Filipinos are the most mistreated seafarers on the high seas. They work long hours every single day on tankers and cargo & cruise ships far away from their families for long periods of time for little money.   

When Filipino crew members are injured and disabled in accidents or due to the cumulative trauma caused by harsh long term work conditions, Filipinos are required to return home and accept the minimal payments outlined in a modest schedule of benefits published by the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration (POEA). The skimpy benefits pale in comparison to compensation awards in the U.S. They are an embarrassment to the labor agency and employers of any civilized country.  

As you can see, a standard POEA employment contract  limits a maimed crew members who, for example, loses his or her entire hand, by amputation between the wrist and elbow joint, in a gruesome work-related accident, to a total maximum benefit of only $29,480. Such a paltry amount hardly compensates the crew member for his past and future lost wages, pain and suffering, mental anguish and disfigurement for the rest of his life.

Under the POEA, death benefits are as little as $50,000 plus $7,000 for each minor child, not Filipino Seafarerexceeding four in total. So the surviving family members of a crew member with two children killed at sea by the gross negligence of a cruise line employer receive a total payment of $65,000 including a nominal payment of $1,000 toward the family’s funeral and burial expenses.

Once a crew member or or their families receive a death or disability payment, they waive the right to file a claim against the cruise line employer and operator of the cruise line. This is in violation of the International Labor Organization (ILO).

Such low payments trivialize the worth of a Filipino life. It is an insignificant if not meaningless amount in the eyes of the billion dollar, non-tax paying U.S. based cruise industry. Compare, for example, the money collected by the far cat cruise executives here in Miami (like NCL executive Frank Del Rio who collected over $31,000,000 in 2015).  A common thought of a cruise line risk adjuster or P&I representative when a davit fails and a lifeboat from a cruise ship falls several stories into the sea is that it’s cheaper to have a Filipino aboard who’s killed than any other nationality.  

Further injustice occurs when crew members suffer from ill health such as high blood pressure, heart problems and other sicknesses caused by the stress of hard work and long working hours. Manning agencies and cruise line employers are increasingly refusing to acknowledge that the injuries and illness suffered by crew members are "work-related," a requirement for the payment of such benefits. Crew members must submit to an examination of a single doctor, retained by the employer, who often assign a low impediment percentage, resulting in a minimal benefit, or claim that the illness pre-existed the crew member’s shipboard work, resulting in no payment.  Company doctors are known to work with an eye toward pleasing the employer and its lawyers, at the detriment of the injured seafarer.

Even when a crew member receives an award by the National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC), maritime employers often choose to appeal the award and seek a deduction.

Several years ago, I wrote about the plight of a Filipino seafarer Lito Asignacion who worked as a Burn Unitsenior engine fitter on board a bulk carrier who sustained serious burns of his abdomen and legs when scalding water overflowed a tank do to unsafe working conditions on the vessel. The crew member underwent extensive and painful medical treatment in the burn units of West Jefferson Medical Center and Baton Rouge General Medical Center in Louisiana, U.S.A.  Asignacion was treated and underwent skin grafting burns of 35% of his body.

Mr. Asignacion thereafter returned to the Philippines where he continued undergoing medical treatment at a number of hospitals and with a number of doctors who performed plastic surgery. He is now unemployed, disabled and scarred for life.

His employer argued that under the POEA, the burned crew member suffered a grade 14 disability which would entitle him to only 3.74% of USD $50,000. 

The Filipino Labor Board agreed and awarded Asignacion just $1,870.

The labor board made a point of stating that the shipping company had offered the disabled crew member $25,000 “out of compassion and generosity," implying that the injured crew member had foolishly rejected the "generous" offer. 

The vindictive labor board also cited language from a prior decision that compensation for serious injured Filipino seafarers is low because Filipino seafarers are perceived as crew members "who complain too much.”

This patronizing and inherently evil sentiment is alive and well in the cruise industry today. Insurance entities like protection & indemnity clubs in the U.K. who are responsible for minimizing payments by its rich shipowner members are taking steps to make it even harder for Filipino crew members to receive reasonable compensation for career-ending injuries and illnesses.

Recently, a claims director at UK P&I Club in a P&I Club publication praised the new Seafarers’ Protection Act. Ironically enough, the new law does not protect the Filipino seafarer from the greedy cruise lines, or the P&I companies and defense lawyers who do their bidding, but targets who UK P&I Clubthe P&I Club villainize as the "ambulance-chasing" lawyers who pursue "spurious claims." 

The claims representative, Tony Nicholson (photo left), argues that the new "Seafarers’ Protection Act is designed to protect Filipino seafarers and their families from the unscrupulous practices of such lawyers and came into force on 21 May 2016. Under the new law, any individual or group – whether lawyers or not – found to be soliciting directly or via agents will be imprisoned for one–two years and/or fined PHP 50,000–100,000 (approximately US$1–2,000)."

The UK P&I Club further proposes permitting maritime employers, which are ordered by arbitration panels to pay benefits to the disabled seafarers, permission not to pay the awards pending an appeal. This will encourage the wealthy employers and cruise lines to place financial pressure on the injured seafarers and force them to accept cheap settlements. 

As the sad case of Lito Asignacion demonstrates, the Filipino labor system already permits maritime employers and their insurance companies to abandon those seafarers who have sacrificed and suffered greatly for their families. Imprisoning lawyers who advocate greater rights for seafarers, and permitting maritime employers to withhold the payments of arbitration awards, make a further mockery of a system which works to protect the rich while screwing the injured and impoverished seafarer. 

August 19 2016 Update:  The Inquirer in Manilla publshed this article as an op-ed titled Seafarer ‘Protection Act’ shields ship owners, not seafarers.

Photo Credit: Top – By Maxime Felder – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia; bottom – UK P&I Club

A maritime disaster is unfolding in the Philippines after the passenger ferry MV Thomas Aquinas sank after colliding with a large cargo ship, the MV Sulpicio Express, near the port of Cebu. 

The ferry was carrying 752 passengers, including children and infants, and 118 crew members. 

More than 200 people are missing after passengers were forced to jump into the water. Some managed to get into life rafts but many others were trapped into the ferry as it sank. Divers are combing through the sunken ferry, which rests at around 100 feet underwater, to retrieve the bodies of the missing. 629 people were rescued.

BBC News reports that maritime accidents are common in the Philippine waters because of badly maintained passenger vessels and weak enforcement of safety regulations.

The world’s worst maritime disaster occurred in the Philippines in December 1987 when more than 4,000 people died after the Dona Paz ferry collided with a tanker and sank.

Photo Credit: Reuters (top) / Reuters (bottom)

Sulpicio Express - Thomas Aquinas Collision

Thomas Aquinas - Sulpicio Express

Several years ago, U.S. based cruise lines began insisting that injured crew members seeking compensation for their injuries must pursue their claims through arbitration in foreign countries.

Companies like Carnival, NCL and Royal Caribbean started moving to dismiss lawsuits filed here in Miami, arguing that seriously injured crew members are not entitled to jury trials in the U.S. but must file arbitration claims in either their home countries or where the cruise ships are flagged.

The cruise industry’s lawyers understood perfectly well that many of these foreign countries, like the Philippines, Bermuda or Panama, had virtually no laws that provided compensation to their employees NCL Norway Explosion or the existing compensation scheme was a pittance.          

In 2003, the NCL Norway blew up at the port of Miami (photo right).  Eight Filipinos were scalded to death. Many other crew members were seriously burned in the explosion.

NCL responded to lawsuits filed by the dead men’s surviving wives and children by moving to dismiss the cases and arguing that the grieving family members could not file suit here in Miami, where the explosion took place and NCL was headquartered. Instead, the only claims permitted were in a non-jury arbitration process in Manila where the damages for wrongful death were limited to around $50,000.

NCL won its motions and paid very small amounts to the families, even though the 45-year-old Norway cruise ship was in deplorable condition. You can read our analysis here

Since then, most of the cruise lines have drafted onerous terms and conditions in the crew member’s employment contracts which prohibit lawsuits to be filed in the U.S. and limit recovery to the smallest imaginable amounts for serious injuries even in cases where the cruise line is grossly negligent.    

A recent case illustrated just how unfair the arbitration process is.   

Filipino crew member Lito Asignacion worked as a senior engine fitter on board the vessel M/V Rickmers Dalian (flagged in the Marshall Islands) for Global Management Limited.

Rickmers Dalian AccidentIn October 2010, while the ship was in the port of New Orleans alongside of 7th Street Wharf, crew member Asignacion sustained serious burns of his abdomen and legs when scalding water overflowed a tank. The crew member underwent extensive and painful medical treatment in the burn units of West Jefferson Medical Center and Baton Rouge General Medical Center in Louisiana, U.S.A.

Asignacion was treated and underwent skin grafting burns of 35% of his body.

He thereafter was returned to the Philippines where he continued undergoing medical treatment at a number of hospitals and with a number of doctors who performed plastic surgery. He is now unemployed, disabled and scarred for life.

Asignacion filed suit in state court in Jefferson Parish where the accident occurred, but his case was dismissed and he was ordered to proceed with arbitration in the Philippines.

The shipping company argued that the case was controlled totally by Philippine law and Asignacion had no rights whatsoever under U.S. law.  The company argued that under the Philippines Overseas Employment agreement (POEA), the crew member suffered a grade 14 disability which would entitle him to only 3.74% of USD $50,000 or a total award of $1,870.00 (US).

The Filipino Labor Board agreed and awarded Asignacion just $1,870.

Crew Member BurnThe labor board made a point of stating that the shipping had offered the burned crew member $25,000 “out of compassion and generosity," implying that he had foolishly rejected the "generous" offer.  The opinion reads and sounds vindictive.

The labor board also cited language from a prior decision that compensation for serious injured Filipino seafarers is low because the labor board sad that the seafarers are perceived as crew members "who complain too much.”  

The award is a disgrace.  The process is the result of a kangaroo court.

This is how shipping companies and cruise lines doing business in the U.S. treat their crew members from the Philippines and other countries outside of the U.S.

 

The case name is Lito M. Asignacion, Complainant, vs Rickmers Marine Agency Philippine, Inc.,Global Management Limited, and Navis Maritime Services, Ind., Respondents. AC-305-NCMB-NCR-100-07-11-12.  If you would like a copy of the decision, please contact me: jim@cruiselaw.com. 

Republic of the Philippines, Department of Labor and Employment, National Conciliation and Mediation Board, National Capital Region, Intramuros Manila. The award was by: 

Jesus S. Silo – Chairman.

Leonardo B. Saulog – Member.

Gregorio C. Blares, Jr. – Member.

 

Photo Credit: Rickmers Dalian

An Azamara cruise ship, the Quest, reportedly caught fire in the Sulu Sea, between the Philippines and Borneo.

The story was first mentioned on Twitter by Simon Browning, a reporter for BBC Radio 4, whose twitter handle is @simbrowning.  Around 9:24 AM this morning, Mr. Browning tweeted: "hearing reports a cruise ship is on fire in Borneo – that there is chaos on board #Cruise #Borneo its full of western tourists.

The blaze reportedly occurred in the engine room on the Quest which departed on Monday for a 17-night cruise Azamara Quest Cruise Ship Firefrom Hong Kong to Singapore. Azamara is owned by Royal Caribbean Cruises, Ltd., which is based in Miami.  

A cruise spokesperson stated: “On Friday, March 30, at approximately 8.19pm ship time, Azamara Quest experienced a fire in the engine room. The fire was contained to the engine room and was quickly extinguished."

The cruise line states that passengers mustered at their fire assembly stations.  No passengers were reportedly injured although the cruise press release is silent regarding injuries to crew.  The cruise line states that the ship is "currently running on generator power," although there is no information whether the vessel can cruise to a port under its own power.  There is also no information about the weather conditions.

We have written many article about cruise ship fires over the years.  Deadly cruise ship fires occur more frequently than the cruise industry is willing to admit. Consider reading: "Ten Years of Cruise Ship Fires – Has the Cruise Industry Learned Anything?"

It will be interesting to hear first hand accounts from the passengers, whether the fire was "quickly extinguished" and how the crew handled the emergency.

Were you on the cruise?  Please leave a comment or send us photos or video.

March 30, 20121 / 11:30 PM Update:

We obtained a copy of an email (below) from the Navigation Officer aboard the Quest cruise ship to the Philippines Coast Guard indicating that one crew member, Juan Carlos Rivera Escobar, was in "unstable condition" following the cruise ship fire.

It is disappointing that the cruise line would state that all passengers are uninjured and not mention the injuries to this crew member.  

The last know coordinates of the stricken Quest ship per the email are Lat: 7′ 35’N / Long: 119′ 59′ E.

The email indicates that the vessel is "not under command." 

This information comes not from the cruise line but from newspaper sources on twitter.

Azamara Quest Cruise Ship - Cruise Ship Fire 

Credit: Miquel Ortilla

March 31, 2012 Update / 1:00 AM Update:

The Azamara facebook page finally indicates that many crew members were seriously injured in the fire, as we suspected:

"Unfortunately, five crew members onboard the ship suffered smoke inhalation during the fire. The crew members are being treated in our medical facility. However, one crew member is more seriously injured and requires additional and urgent medical attention that can only be provided in a hospital. Once the ship arrives in Sandakan, the crew member will be immediately transported to a local area hospital."

The facebook page includes contact information for families:

1 – 888 – 829 – 4050 from the US and Canada.

1 – 408 – 916 – 9001 outside the US.

The Royal Caribbean operators will take calls only from families.

Newspaper / media inquiries must email corporatecommunications@rccl.com

April 2, 2012 Update:  The Quest limped into port in Sandakan, Malaysia and have high praise for the captain and crew.  The seriously injured crew member was finally taken to the hospital.