Bahamas Paradise settles, will pay crew $875,000 for months of work without wages

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Miami Herald

Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line crew members may finally get paid after months of working without wages on the company’s Florida-based ships.

In a settlement agreement reached between the crew members and the company Friday, Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line will pay $875,000 to around 275 crew members, according to the lawyer representing the crew, Michael Winkleman. The settlement in the class-action lawsuit is still awaiting approval from a federal judge in Miami.

“We are very pleased with this settlement and we are confident it will fully and fairly compensate the entire crew who were stuck on the ship,” Winkleman said.

Bahamas Paradise crew members have endured months of unpaid labor during the COVID-19 pandemic and threats for speaking out about the conditions on board, the Miami Herald found.

After the U.S. government canceled cruises on March 14, Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line asked crew members on its two ships the Grand Celebration and the Grand Classica to sign an agreement to continue working without pay. The company said it would pay crew members again as soon as cruising resumed — at that time, estimated as mid-April.

But cruises remained canceled, and crew members never got paid again even though they continued to cook and clean aboard the ships. While on board they had to pay for necessities like toiletries and bottled water, depleting their savings.

Those who aired their concerns on social media or spoke to journalists about the conditions on board were threatened and retaliated against by hotel director Prem Kainikkara, according to interviews with crew members and a recording of a meeting obtained by the Miami Herald. When a group of crew members did not show up for their shift after the company stopped paying them, Kainikkara threatened to cancel their visas and have them arrested, according to a crew member who participated in the small strike.

CEO Oneil Khosa boarded the ship in early June and promised each crew member still on board a one-time $1,000 payment by July 25, according to a recording of the meeting obtained by the Herald. July 25 came and went without pay. A teary crew member pleaded with Khosa at another meeting in late July, according to a recording obtained by the Herald.

“We are all loyal here supporting our company for four and a half months months right now and we have received nothing,” she said, crying. “Our family back home is struggling.”

Khosa again promised each crew member $1,000. No money came.

The seafarers have little recourse. U.S. labor laws do not apply to cruise ship workers as the companies and ships are registered abroad. The Maritime Labor Convention of 2006 provides the only international workplace protections for seafarers, but the U.S. is not one of the 97 signatories and therefore does not enforce its crew welfare rules.

On Aug. 4, Dragan Janicijevic, 44, a casino worker on the Grand Celebration who made it off the ship and home to Serbia in late June, filed a class-action lawsuit against the company in federal court in Miami alleging the crew had been forced to work without wages.

The company has not responded to numerous requests for comment. In an interview with the Palm Beach Post last week, Khosa said the company is struggling to stay afloat.

“The situation has exposed so many of us to so much uncertainty and negativity,” he told the Post. “Economically, at the end of the day, everybody’s trying to do what it takes to survive. To me the most important thing is to stay in business.”

Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line operates two-night cruises from the Port of Palm Beach to Grand Bahama. The company is majority-owned by the family of former Norwegian Cruise Line CEO Kevin Sheehan. The Bahamas Maritime Authority, the agency in charge of enforcing international maritime law for the company’s ships, said it is investigating the company.

After the Herald published a story about how the company forced crew members to work without wages using threats and promised payments, President Kevin Sheehan Jr., son of the company’s owner, held a virtual meeting with crew on board the ships in mid-August. He urged crew members to contact him directly with their concerns and said an outside investigator would interview each crew member individually the following day, according to a recording of the meeting obtained by the Herald. The interviews never happened, said one crew member still on board at the time.

Only around 40 crew members remain on each ship.

The $875,000 settlement will cover unpaid wages and the two months’ severance each crew member is guaranteed in their employment contracts, according to Winkleman, the lawyer.

Crew purser Yelitza Cornejo said the settlement feels like justice.

Cornejo, 33, from Peru, refused to sign the agreement in March to work without pay. She said the hotel director of the Grand Celebration, where she worked, took away her Wi-Fi after she raised concerns about the working crew on social media.

“I knew from the beginning that some day justice would come,” she said. “We are very grateful to who initiated this because everybody was hopeless and now we can say that justice arrived.”