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Hell on the Cruise Ships

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The abandonment of the global cruise ship working class during the COVID era is one of the little known horror stories. These people were simply abandoned and forced to stay on the cruise ships as no nation would take them in. I’ve linked to a few stories about this, but none as detailed and horrifying at this Bloomberg piece.

Interviews with affected crew members and their families suggest that despite assurances from cruise operators that crew were well cared for, their mental health was at times an afterthought. An October 2019 study on the mental well-being of crew, commissioned by a group affiliated with the International Transport Workers’ Federation, the big maritime trade union, found that even before the pandemic about a fifth of mariners surveyed said they had suicidal thoughts. High levels of depression stem from the jobs’ long contract lengths and stressful demands. Lower-level crew—such as junior housekeepers and galley staffers—often come from poorer countries and commit to half-year stints or longer at sea, working 8 to 10 hours, seven days a week. Their salaries can range from about $650 to $2,000 a month, depending on seniority. The pay per hour is low by American standards, but workers say that it’s more than they could earn at home and that they appreciate the opportunity to travel the world.

After the pandemic hit, workers had to put their lives on hold as Carnival and Royal Caribbean clashed with government authorities over how to get them home safely. It was one thing to offload a group of American passengers in California or Florida and arrange private transport stateside. But what about the convoluted logistics of repatriating crew from India, the Philippines, or Ukraine—all while most of the world was closing its borders to stop the virus’s spread?

Workers blamed the CDC for imposing onerous restrictions on travel, such as requiring company executives to sign off on a litany of health processes for disembarkation through U.S. harbors and airports at the risk of criminal penalties. But they also faulted cruise operators for seeming unwilling to pay for chartered flights abroad. A Carnival spokesperson says the conglomerate ended up spending $300 million and chartering 225 flights to get crew home to more than 100 countries, but fluctuating travel rules made it so “even the simplest crew movements required weeks of diplomatic work.” A Royal Caribbean spokesman says that “constant changes in government restrictions” caused delays and that they worked for months to get crew home through private and commercial transportation.

This left many crew members with a tedious confinement that started in March and April after passengers disembarked. The ships were eerie—like an “empty ghost ship,” as one Royal Caribbean worker puts it—especially for those who had to quarantine after being exposed to the coronavirus. For some, that meant being stuck for nearly three weeks in an economy room, one that barely fit a bunk bed, desk, and minifridge, with a porthole window.

It wasn’t just the claustrophobic environment that was distressing. Workers say cruise companies constantly changed repatriation schedules, offering only vague guidance on when or how they’d return home. Without customers on board, Carnival moved many contractors off duty, meaning they could sort of enjoy the amenities of the ocean liners. But that also meant their salaries were eventually cut off—a scary situation for those supporting families on land. The weeks dragged on with limited entertainment options. Internet access was complimentary on some boats, but it could be painfully slow or strong enough only for social media and texting.

This sort of highly mobile labor is always extremely vulnerable. These aren’t great jobs, despite the (bizarre imo) belief among travelers that cruise ships make an enjoyable vacation. This is why the workforce is so globalized; it takes a certain kind of worker who is willing to do this and largely live in poorer nations than our own.

At the very least, we need a whole new raft of labor regulations coming out of this pandemic. From meatpacking to the grocery stores to the cruise ships, this has exposed the horrors of the labor system.

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