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.

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Photo credit: M/S Amsterdam – Crew Center

Royal Caribbean CruisesNewspapers in Serbia are reporting that several cruise lines, including Royal Caribbean, are allegedly refusing to hire crew members from Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. You can read one article from the Telegraf newspaper here.

The newspapers are suggesting that the cruise lines took this action to blacklist young people from this part of East Europe because the prospective employees intended to fake injuries and bring lawsuits for compensation soon after joining the cruise companies.

The Sef Foruma Facebook page says that even candidates who are just waiting to join cruise ships receive rejection letters (see blow) after the crew members have already gone though pre-employment medical examinations. 

These allegations surprise us. We have represented many crew members from these countries (as well as Croatia). Many of these cases involve serious accidents and injuries resulting in surgeries as well as substandard medical care by cruise ship doctors. One of our last cases involved the refusal of the cruise line to provide medical treatment to a young Serbian woman suffering from cancer.

I suspect that if cruises line are refusing to hire employees from Serbia or Bosnia-Herzegovina, it’s because the companies can hire crew members cheaper from Indonesia, India and the Philippines.

There is nothing that can be done even if the cruise lines are openly discriminating against citizens from these countries. Cruise lines are free to hire and fire (or not re-hire) ship employees with impunity. There is a saying in Miami amongst maritime lawyers that cruise lines can fire crew members for good reason, bad reason or no reason. Unfortunately, its the crew members who are trying to support their families who suffer the most.  

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Serbia Crew Members

 Photo Credit: Wikepedia / Baldwin040 Creative Commons 3.0; Image Credit: Sef Foruma.

Update: I received this comment from a reader from Serbia saying that the hiring agency had its contract with the cruise line canceled because it was charging recruits for a job:  

"AGENCY Service published false news in TELEGRAF newspapers , In order to hide behind their bad deeds The point is that the agency -Kouzon lost license , they have lost their license because they charge recruits for trainings , which the company ( Royal ) already paid to them ,,,,,,Also, they charge recruits for services 350Eur + training 120 Eur it is at least 450 Eur per recruit ,,, as well This is against the law to do in the Republic of Serbia ,,,, to make long story short ,,, they took money for too many recruits, and now they lost license ,, and they are not able anymore to send recruits to work for Royal,,, that is a problem,,, so they make false story and they are hiding behind ….Crew members from every country sue the company if they got injured, From Brasil, Agentila, USA, China and nobody got banned for that …….That is a false news, a thousand peoples from Balkan are waiting for a job because they paid to the agency for that, but they will not go because agency lost license ,,that ia all truth ,,,,,and And these are the bills that confirm that the agency collect money for services and training."