A lawsuit filed Tuesday against a Florida-based cruise line claims staff were ‘effectively held hostage’ after being forced to stay aboard ships without pay thousands of miles from their homes because of the coronavirus pandemic.
According to a class action filed in a federal court in Miami, staff at Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line were subject to ‘involuntary servitude’ and refused two months’ pay after all their contracts were terminated in March.
The complaint also alleges that the company seized crew members’ U.S. landing permits meaning that staff – the majority of whom are from South and Southeast Asia and the Balkans – could not leave the ships.
The suit, filed this week on behalf of Serbian national Dragan Janicijevic, claims that there were potentially 10,000 crew members trapped aboard the ships.
It also claims staff were forced to sign agreements stating they would voluntarily stay on the ships but were refused pay and misled about plans to transfer them home.
‘LM&W has filed a lawsuit on behalf of Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line crewmembers who were forced to sign a document stating they were voluntarily staying onboard, without pay,’ said law firm Lipcon, Margulies & Winkleman PA, which specialize in maritime law and representing passengers and crew on ships.
‘Remarkably, there are still crew members effectively held hostage on the ship,’ it added.
‘This egregiously delayed repatriation is tantamount to false imprisonment of the crew.’
Janicijevic, who worked as a casino dealer on the Grand Celebration, has filed the complaint on behalf of all other crew members after they were left stranded off the Florida coast earlier this year.
‘They kept us on the ship like captives, prisoners,’ the 44-year-old, who managed to escape the vessel in June, told The Washington Post.
‘You work for food, your moves are restricted, and they still don’t let you leave.’
His attorney Michael A. Winkleman said the entrapment of staff on board was equivalent to forced labor and slavery.
‘The crew were unnecessarily kept on the ships for months on end, many thousands of miles away from their homes and families,’ the complaint says.
In a statement to DailyMail.com, Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line said that they would not be commenting publicly on the matter ‘out of respect to the legal process and the privacy of those involved’.
In a separate statement to Bloomberg Law, a representative said that the cruise line had ‘worked tirelessly’ to repatriate its workers and had ‘provided accommodations, food and onboard credit for incidentals’ for those unable to travel home because of closed borders.
It added that ‘to-date, more than 90 percent’ of its workers ‘have safely returned home.’
According to a timeline of events provided by Janicijevic in the complaint, on March 14, the Florida-based company suspended all of its future cruises and the next day seized crew members’ I-95 landing permits after the CDC issued a no-sail order.
It alleges that on March 16, crew members were transferred from the Grand Classica ship to the Grand Celebration but were not provided with any protective clothing and no social distancing was implemented.
Around this time, crew members were told their contracts had been terminated in a large meeting – where personal protective equipment was also not provided – and said they would not be paid the full amount for the remainder of their contracts.
The complaint continues to allege that the following day, a document was circulated to crew members, now all onboard the Grand Celebration, threatening that they would not be hired again by the company unless they promised to remain on the ship without pay.
‘I voluntary request to stay on board instead of choosing to fly home. By choosing to stay onboard without pay until the government has lifted restrictions for me to return home or until Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line returns to normal operation,’ the document allegedly read.
Janicijevic told the Washington Post he agreed to sign the document at the time as the no-sail order was only set to last for month and the ship had no coronavirus cases, leaving him less at risk of infection.
Yet, as the order was extended further, the situation on board became steadily more grim for staff who were unable to make money or return to their home countries.
He says that some staff continued to work, cooking and cleaning as they hoped to receive pay checks that never came.
‘Every day it was repeating, repeating,’ Janicijevic added. ‘It was like groundhog day, waiting for something to happen. The mental anguish was over the top.’
The suit adds that while onboard, crew members were provided with food and accommodation but that they were served with buffet-style meals, against the advice of the CDC,
It states other necessities had to be paid for, despite the staff having no way to make money.
It adds that Bahamas Paradise Cruise Lin misrepresented to its crew members the efforts that were being made to repatriate them.
The suit states that crew members repeatedly requested to be allowed home or off the vessel but that even when the Honduran consulate in Miami said it had assisted in negotiating a repatriation flight for Honduran crew members, the company refused to allow these staff to get off the vessel and onto the flight.
While Janicijevic successfully made it home to Serbia on June 21, he said that the company was refusing to pay for chartered flights to allow their staff to travel, even though the CDC has now banned cruise staff from taking commercial flights.
Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line operated two-day sailings out of Port of Palm Beach, Florida, sailing to Grand Bahama Island and Nassau.
It has two ships in its fleet – Grand Celebration and Grand Classica – with sailings on both ships suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The company uses mostly foreign-born crew members who agree to contracts lasting about eight months, as they work as everything from entertainers to cleaners.
‘All cruise lines have tremendous power over their crew members, who will do anything to keep their jobs. Anything,’ Winkleman said. ‘They can treat them [workers] like garbage, with little or no recourse.’
The lawsuit comes shortly after the cruise line announced it is suspending sailings again until October 1, potentially leaving crew members still on board stranded for a further two months.
In the announcement it boasted that it remain one of the few cruise lines that has reported no cases of coronavirus onboard their ships and the only cruise line in the country to receive ‘green status’ from the CDC on its No Sail Response plan.
‘We have met their requirements in providing a safe environment for our crew members to work and disembark via commercial travel,’ the company said.
‘This was also recognized in the CDC’s own statement.
‘We have also followed all required guidelines, including adhering to strict requirements for our onboard crew members, and installed the best safety protocols in the industry across our fleet to protect our guests and crew, who are always our top priority,’ it added.
According to the Miami Herald, up to 100,000 crew ship members remained on ships from various cruise lines, anchored around the U.S. coast in limbo for months following the no-sail order.
Cruise ships were among the first major outbreaks at the start of the coronavirus pandemic due to the close conditions onboard between crew and passengers.