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The Floating Proletariat


There is so, so much to hate about the cruise industry. Aesthetically, I absolutely despise cruises, with its grotesque buffets, gambling, Americans fearful of traveling without being surrounded by other Americans wearing flag tanktops, and the disembarking to be ripped off by cheap tourist crap while never venturing more than a half-mile from the boat. The most up close I’ve seen this was in Fort-de-France, Martinique, where I stayed a night in a hotel next to a cruise dock and got to see all this in action. From a health perspective, cruise ships were nightmares even before COVID-19, with disease breakouts, food poisoning, and other problems common. And from a labor perspective, they rely on armies of little seen labor, toiling away to make the experiences of the tourist comfortable and with as little inconvenience as possible. Gotta keep those crab legs piping hot on the buffet! But that global floating proletariat moves around the oceans with few labor rights and, right now, no place to go.

In the avenue of ocean that stretches south from Miami to Cuba and northeast to the Bahamas, dozens of cruise ships sail back and forth. Every so often, they come into Florida ports to refuel and restock. Otherwise, they wait.

The crew members on board — many no longer receiving paychecks — wait for news about when they will return home and see their families again. Two months after the cruise industry shut down amid repeated COVID-19 outbreaks on ships, more than 100,000 crew members remain trapped at sea with little reliable information about what will happen to them.

While most passengers were able to get off cruise ships by early April, crew members have largely remained stuck. During the prolonged isolation, the virus continued to spread through the ships. At least 578 crew contracted COVID-19 at sea and seven have died, according to a Herald analysis.

At least two crew members have leaped overboard in apparent suicides. On May 10, a 39-year-old crew member from Ukraine on the Regal Princess ship died after jumping overboard while the ship was anchored off Rotterdam, Netherlands. Late last month a crew member jumped off Royal Caribbean’s Jewel of the Seas ship while it was near Greece; his body was never found.

This is a real disaster, with people stuck in an interminable limbo.

Among those caught in limbo is Meshal Habib, 48, from Romania. He signed an agreement with his company, Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line to forego his salary from mid-March to mid-April, and stay on board the 1,500-passenger Grand Celebration shipto begin to work again after the initial 30-day hiatus. When it became clear in early April that cruises would not be starting again, he asked to go home. Though April is long past, he has not been paid.

For a month and a half, Habib said he had to pay for bottled water and soap until the company began providing the items at the beginning of May. Still, he is desperate to get home to his family andfind work there. So far, he said, the company has told him it can’t afford the private flights.

“I pay rent for my parents and my sister,” he said. “I need to go home to work.”

One big reason why American companies register ships in Panama and other third party nations? Because then they aren’t subject to American labor law. This is exactly the kind of thing that can be stopped with labor law reform to hold American companies accountable no matter how they operate.

Read the whole thing–it’s a very long and valuable report.

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