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Cruise liners no luxury for crew as long hours, low wages prevail

By Buddy Nevins
The Sun-Sentinel

Cruise ships provide luxurious vacations for millions of passengers each year, but crews on these same ships toil up to 100 hours a week, sometimes for less than $1 an hour, cruise lines and their critics agree.

Jobs for seamen in the deck, engine and catering sections of the ship usually provide no health insurance or other benefits.

Crewmen say they are fed cheap food, housed in cramped quarters and work dangerous jobs without safety equipment.

When they complain, they can be fined, jailed in the ships brig or deported in handcuffs, according to marine experts.

The same system is used by all of South Florida’s cruise ship companies. Sailing foreign-registered ships, they hire largely untrained crews from Third World countries to work at salaries and under health and safety conditions that would be intolerable to American workers.

While cruise industry spokesmen concede many of the allegations, they argue that they provide one of the few chances for thousands of Third World peasants and urban poor to improve their lives.

“They are coming for economic opportunities. Nobody puts a gun to their head,” said Ruthano Devlin, spokeswoman for the Miami-based Tropicana Cruises.

“We all do the same thing,” said Tim Gallagher, spokesman for Carnival Cruise Lines.

“I work all the time,” said Jerry Modesto. “From 6 in the morning until after midnight I wash pots. It’s hot. It’s noisy. I live with eight others in the cabin. But when I complain…” He drew a finger across his throat to indicate he was fired.

Modesto, a Filipino, said he worked 14 hours a day, seven days a week on Royal Caribbean’s Sun Viking for less than $400 a month. He said that is the norm, not the Exception.

“They treat crewmen like an orange. They squeeze and squeeze and when there is nothing left, they throw away the peel,” said Charles Lipcon, a Miami attorney who represents more than 100 crewmen annually.

Even seaman’s employment papers indicate the difficult working conditions on cruise ships.

“The actual work is extremely hard; 12-l4 hours per day; 7days a week, 2 sittings for breakfast, luncheon and dinner. Work breaks can be negotiated alter 18 weeks employment and are subject to Poseidon Services being given 4 weeks notice. Personnel may be required to carry out duties in addition to their normal tasks (such as) helping with the removal of passengers luggage,’ warns Poseidon Services Ltd. of Miami, a firm responsible for hiring the waiters on a number of cruise ships.

The conditions are confirmed by interviews with crewmen, seafarers’ rights workers, dockside priests, union officials and maritime lawyers.

Among the targets of frequent complaints are Carnival Cruise Lines, Chandris Fantasy Cruises and Apollo Ship Chandlers, a west Dade County company that operates the dining room and bar concessions on many of the local ships.

Norwegian-owned Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines and Norwegian Cruise Line offer better working conditions, although they also are below U.S. employment standards, say unions, sailors and seafarers’ rights organizations.

Crews’ living space cramped

During a two-month investigation of cruise ship working conditions, the Sun-Sentinel found:

Crew members are housed up to 10 in a cabin, bunking up to three deep in less than 100 square feet of space, according to a seafarers’ rights group.

“Everyone feels hot and suffocated,” said Fernando Olguin, a Colombian pantry man working on a cruise ship out of Miami.

Some older Carnival and Chandris ships were not built as cruise ships. Now they provide luxury amenities which require a larger crew, but the crew’s quarters remain essentially the same.

Crews have no recreation space on many ships. Engine-room crews are not allowed among passengers on most ships they spend days in the narrow, noisy warren below deck without ever seeing the sun.

Carnival does sell liquor to crewmen, according to court testimony. “It’s like the old company Store,” said attorney Lipcon. “They’ve got you trapped on the ship and the only recreation is liquor they sell.”

“Crewmen appreciate that we sell liquor,” Gallagher responded. “We have more than 10,000 employees on ships. No doubt some are dissatisfied. Most are happy.”

And if unhappy crewmen attempt to organize, Carnival fires them, something the cruise line could not do lawfully to American workers, union officials say. Guido Vecchio, South Florida organizer of the National Maritime Union said he warns Carnival crewmembers not to keep union literature or cards in their lockers. Several crewmen aboard the Port Everglades-based, Carnival-owned Marti Gras were fired this spring when a search of their belongings turned up NMU cards, Vecchio said.

Gallagher emphatically denied that. “It is an absolute lie,” he said.

Crewmen sometimes fail to get paid what they were promised.

Pedro Jimenez said he was promised $405 a month by one cruise line to work in the kitchens of its ships. But Jimenez said his first month’s salary was $370.

Vecchio said he has dozens of pay envelopes and seamen’s contracts which indicate crewmen sometimes are not paid what they are promised.

Because most seafarers get paid in cash, there is a great potential for theft. Seafarers’ rights groups, crewmen, maritime attorneys and the union say this is not uncommon.

Workers start, stay in debt

Crewmen often pay agents for jobs, sometimes huge amounts for Third World natives. They sometimes have to borrow the money from loan sharks and are never out of debt.

Two seafarers each paid a manning agent from Hollywood $2,000 far a job; almost six times the average yearly income of $340 in their native Sri Lanka. They say they expected to make $300 a month. When they were fired after three months, the crewmen went underground rather than return home to their enormous debts, said The Center for Seafarers’ Rights, which monitors shipboard conditions for the 155- ear-old Seaman’s Church Institute in New York City.

Crews work in noisy engine rooms without earplugs, clean sooty boilers without lace masks, and operate machinery without goggles, according to Court records, the seafarers’ center and crewmen.

Jean Claude Salvant, a Haitian who this year lost part of a finger while working for Norwegian Cruise Line on the air-conditioning system aboard The Norway, said he never was offered any safety equipment.

“It was clang, clang, like the inside of a bell. My ears rang a long time after work,” Salvant said.

A spokeswoman for owners of the Norway said that the crews on the ships are “properly equipped.” She said the ship complies with all the worker-safety laws of the Bahamas, where it is registered.

Crews complain they are not fed balanced meals, but receive mostly rice and stew. They sometimes are not given utensils and individual plates and must eat from common bowls with their hands, say crewmen and the seafarers’ center.

Several cruise lines refused direct comment on that allegation, but Martin Salzedo, president of Fort Lauderdale-based Discovery Cruises, said, “The crewmen are treated well.”

The contrast between the lavish meals for passengers and the food served crews is painful, said Wayne Harewood; a former crewman on the S.S. Britanis.

“When we were in mid-Atlantic, could see them just throwing the food [from passengers’ plates] overboard. It would sometimes stay and just spoil, yet they would never give us the fruits and vegetables,” Harewood said.

Sometimes conditions get so bad that crewmen approach passengers and beg for help in escaping.

“One guy was begging me to get out,” recalled Paul Herbstzuber of Miramar after a cruise on the Tropicana in May. “He said they were almost prisoners.”

Such approaches happen often, said cruise officials. But they said it is due to the crewmen’s desire to get help and to stay in the United States, not poor working conditions.

Companies threaten to leave

Cruise owners say it would be too costly to improve working conditions on ships and that any attempt to legislate salary, safety, or other employment practices would cause them to flee the Caribbean.

The loss would be around $1 billion in goods and services that cruise lines or their customers purchase in Florida annually, said Arthur Kane, of the Florida Caribbean Cruise Association.

Most South Florida cruise ships are registered in the Bahamas, Liberia, or Panama.

According to the Center for Seafarers’ Rights, Bahamian-flag vessels have no laws covering the number of hours a seaman may work or his days off. Liberian maritime rules do not guarantee seaman a right to shore leave. And Panamanian laws only state that wages must not be “remarkably unfair” in relation to the average wage in the industry.

On most ships sailing from South Florida, discipline is at the whim of the ship’s officers and owners, say crewmen and maritime rights workers.

Seamen on Bahamian-flag vessels, for instance, can be punished by the captain if they complain about safety or the quality of food, according to that nation’s maritime laws.

“The captain of the vessel has to have absolute authority. That’s maritime tradition and law,” said Kane, who conceded that Western European and American union ships have shop stewards who mediate disputes.

On many ships, a captain can fine crewmen large sums and can demote crewmen who depend on tips to jobs that pay no tips, according to congressional testimony.

The ship’s brig, or jail, is also used to contain crewmen who fall out of favor.

Deportation used as threat

When a comment card from a passenger aboard the Chandris-owned M.V. The Victoria this year complained about the lack of ice in a stateroom, the chief steward made the ultimate threat for Third World crewmen: deportation.

“The Greek chief steward had this 50-year-old Indian up against the wall screaming in his face that he would send him back to India if it happened again,” said a Chandris crewman. “This Indian with 11 kids was in tears because of a few words on a comment card.”

Chandris did not return call to their office for comment.

The Indian is still working. Mateus Da Cunha Dos Santos a waiter working for Apollo Ship Chandlers, which operated the restaurants aboard the S.S. Britannia, was not that lucky.

Dos Santos broke his wrist while working and was treated by a Miami physician. When a medical report indicated Dos Santos still could not work seven weeks after the accident, Apollo hired security guards to deal with the crewman, according to a 1988 finding by the Florida Supreme Court. Apollo thought they could avoid paying his medical bills if he was deported, charged attorney Lipcon.

The armed guards working for Apollo handcuffed Dos Santos and took him to the airport for return to Portugal. When Dos Santos showed them a document he had U.S. Government permission to remain here, the guards took the paper from him, according to a Supreme Court decision ordering a trial in the matter.

Those familiar with the working conditions aboard cruise ships are pessimistic about changing the conditions.

Tourists care about their vacations, not cruise employment practices, said Per Storsveen, a storekeeper on Norwegian Cruise Line’s S.S. Starward.

“I do not know if the American public really cares about conditions on cruise ships as long as they can get cheap vacations,” Storsveen told a seafarers’ hearing on cruise working conditions five years ago. “Do they realize that these vacations are made possible by underpaid employees living in bad conditions?”

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