As cruise companies begin to operate passenger cruises again, thousands of crew members remain trapped on ships without pay as they wait to be sent home.
For crew on Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line’s Grand Celebration ship in Palm Beach, the delay has been especially grim. Cleaners and cooks have been working since mid-March without pay, according to two crew members and a lawsuit filed in Miami federal court Tuesday. The suit accuses the company of engaging in “forced labor,” among other claims.
The company did not respond to a request for comment.
Cruise companies have been staying afloat since mid-March when the industry shut down by raising private capital and cutting staff and other costs. Large companies including Carnival Corporation, Royal Caribbean Group, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings and MSC Cruises are not paying non-working crew on their ships while they wait to be repatriated. Those companies are paying working crew.
The Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line crew members allege the company is not paying crew who have been working since mid-March. Their ship, the Grand Celebration, rarely leaves U.S. waters.
Dragan Janicijevic, 44, a casino worker on Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line ships for the last two years, is the named plaintiff in the class-action lawsuit filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida. The suit alleges the company forced crew to work without pay, delayed repatriating crew to cut costs resulting in false imprisonment, did not provide crew the two months’ severance guaranteed in their employment contracts and forced them to sign misleading agreements terminating their contracts.
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. The Bahamas, where the Grand Celebration ship is flagged, is a signatory; the Bahamas Ministry of Transport did not respond to a request for comment.
Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line operates two-night cruises from West Palm Beach to Grand Bahama. The company is majority-owned by the family of former Norwegian Cruise Line CEO Kevin Sheehan.
Janicijevic made it off of the ship and home to his wife and daughter in Serbia in late June after the CDC began allowing commercial travel for crew from ships free of COVID-19. Before the change, companies had to fly crew members home on charter flights, an expense some have avoided by keeping crew on board.
In mid-March, after the CDC banned cruises in U.S. waters for one month, Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line presented crew members with a form saying they agreed to stay on board without wages instead of requesting a flight home. At that point, the CDC had banned cruising only for 30 days, and the company said crew could start working for wages again as soon as cruising was allowed.
Janicijevic said his supervisor told him if he didn’t sign, he would not be hired back.
“I didn’t see this coming,” he said. “I thought, why would I lose my job?”
In April, the CDC extended its ban on cruising until late July. Janicijevic and others asked to be sent home but were told the company did not have the funds for the required charter flights, he said.
“They were keeping us captive,” said Janicijevic.
Meshal Habib, 48, a crew member from Romania, said a supervisor asked him to “volunteer” to work in the kitchen in two-hour shifts. He worked a few times because he said he felt guilty watching the kitchen staff work to feed the rest of the crew without wages.
In early June, after the Herald published a story about Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line charging Habib for necessities like bottled water and toiletries, the CEO of Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line, Oneil Khosa, boarded the Grand Celebration in West Palm Beach and promised crew that the company would pay each person still on board $1,000 to thank them for their loyalty, according to a recording of the meeting obtained by the Herald. The company would give crew the money by July 25 at the latest, Khosa said, when the company planned to resume cruises.
The following day, the ship’s hotel director, Prem Kainikkara, threatened crew who had spoken to journalists or expressed concerns about the situation on social media, according to a recording of the meeting.
“Unfortunately some of us have decided not to be loyal, have decided not to be operating with integrity,” Kainikkara said. “I call it a process of you are biting the hand that feeds you. … In a basket there will be some bad apples. What do you do when you’ve got a rotten apple in the basket? You throw them away, I make sure I put them in the garbage. That’s your choice. … The company cannot pay us without securing the funds.”
July 25 came and went without pay. Housekeeping and food and beverage staff continued to work, the crew members said. The CDC extended its ban on cruises until Oct. 1 as COVID-19 cases in the U.S. continue to surge.
At a meeting on board in late July, a woman who works in the food and beverage department asked Khosa if the promised $1,000 payment could be increased as she approached four and a half months without pay, according to a recording obtained by the Miami 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 said $1,000 is the minimum the company will pay, possibly by mid-August. The crew members said he did not provide the information about the promised payment in writing.
“We have taken whatever steps were needed to ensure survival,” Oneil said to crew at the late July meeting, according to a recording obtained by the Herald. “We want to stand by you. Each and every person in this room is part of the survival. … We will reward that as soon as we can.”
Crew members Habib and Janicijevic hope the lawsuit will force the company to pay the two months’ severance outlined in the employee contracts and back wages to everyone who has worked on the ship without pay during the pandemic.
Michael Winkleman, Janicijevic’s attorney, said in the absence of any enforcement of U.S. labor laws for these seafarers, a lawsuit is their only option to try to recoup the lost wages.
“The agreement they were forced to sign is unenforceable because they made them sign it with the threat of not being hired back,” he said. “As it relates to the folks who were forced to work, that’s essentially slavery.”