American Maritime Officers Association Supports Sen. Rockefeller’s Letter to Cruise Industry

Lipcon, Marguiles, Alsina & Winkleman, P.A

Sen. Jay Rockefeller has made his concerns regarding the cruise industry perfectly clear. After writing a letter to Carnival Corp., addressing several issues with the company and its lack of maritime safety, the politician addressed the same concerns to three of the largest cruise lines, asking them to provide detailed information regarding their safety practices and to bring to light loopholes that allow these companies to headquarter and operate in the United States without paying U.S. income taxes, all while receiving benefits and support of the U.S.’s military and infrastructure.

Now, the American Maritime Officers Association (AMO), the nation’s largest professional merchant marine organization, has declared its support of Rockefeller’s letters, saying the letters are an important step toward  putting “Americans in command of American-owned passenger vessels,” which are currently primarily  commanded and crewed by foreign seamen.

The AMO is working to make a huge change in the cruise industry by requiring cruise lines to register their vessels in the United States. If this were allowed, cruise companies would no longer be able to register their ships in foreign ports to avoid the more stringent laws and regulations associated with registering in the U.S. The stricter U.S. maritime laws would likely solve many of the issues within the industry regarding safety and the industry’s failure to provide justice for victims and crew, often hiding behind technical or jurisdictional arguments set up by the cruise lines’ corporate structure.

“Although the best-known cruise lines are publicly-traded U.S. corporations, these companies register their ships to foreign nations and, rather than employ American officers, the vast majority of captains, deck and engineering officers are from other countries and the crews are from undeveloped nations,” said AMO President Tom Bethel. “The reason cruise lines hire foreigners is because most of them are willing to accept lower wages and fewer benefits.”

The issue of underpaying and overworking crew members is a topic our maritime lawyers know all too well. We are convinced that by reducing pay and overworking crews to the point that they are just exhausted and unable to perform their duties accurately, cruise lines are causing an increase in accidents.  The cruise lines’ are empowered to degrade crewmember conditions because they have successfully forced their crew to raise any employment issues in foreign secret arbitrations, rather than in a U.S. court.  This effectively allows the cruise lines to act with impunity, when it comes to their crew.

As they say, the rich keep getting richer. The cruise line industry is a multibillion-dollar brand and despite the huge amounts of money it can cost a liner when they are found responsible for an accident, crime or death, companies STILL try to avoid coughing up any amount of cash to help prevent incidents from taking place and instead, hide behind their flags of convenience to conceal the fact that incidents happen at all.

Bethel, who was once employed as a ship engineer, added that the AMO has long since attempted to convince U.S.-owned cruise lines to employ American officers:

“It’s frustrating to know that although all AMO-member officers undergo training that exceeds all international standards and, unlike their foreign counterparts, all AMO-member officers are documented, licensed and vetted by the U.S. Coast Guard, yet, they are denied employment opportunities in the cruise industry,” he said.

Agreeing with Rockefeller’s letter to the cruise industry, Bethel emphasized that the number of maritime accidents involving both passenger and cargo vessels has been increasing at an alarming rate. And the worst part is the fact that these incidents could have been avoided by putting better maritime safety regulations in place and training crew members more sufficiently regarding emergency response protocols.

“[…] There has been a rising tide of marine mishaps involving cargo and passenger vessel collisions, life boat drill fatalities, sanitary system breakdowns, steering failures, propulsion problems and engine room fires, all of which underscores the need for increased safety, emergency response, navigational and engineer training – training that all AMO-members have,” argued Bethel, adding that none of these recent accidents and disasters have involved AMO-member officers or American-flagged ships.

According to an online.wsj.com Press Release, the AMO aims to launch “a public awareness and nationwide recruiting campaign aimed at new high school graduates interested in receiving scholarships for educating and training them as engineering officers of which there is a global shortage” on National Maritime Day, May 22, 2013.

“Many of the recent headline-grabbing, at-sea incidents were triggered by engine breakdowns that may be the result of manufacturing defects and/or improper maintenance,” explained Bethel. “AMO can immediately provide qualified marine engineering officers to fill the global gap and is building a new generation of engineers for tomorrow, which is why today’s shipping company executives and American political leaders should consider doing what Senator Rockefeller is doing – helping to preserve and grow the American maritime industry, rather than let it sink it – buying ships from other countries and employing non-Americans.”

Our maritime attorneys agree with the AMO’s efforts in promoting better training for maritime officers and hope that the cruise industry will open its eyes to the dire need for improved safety practices fleet-wide.