‘Held hostage’: Cruise employees were stuck on a ship and forced to work without pay, lawsuit says


Washington Post

When cruises were first told to anchor in March as the coronavirus pandemic hit, the Bahamas Paradise line presented Dragan Janicijevic and other crew members with a choice, he said: Agree to stay on their docked ship without pay, or never work for the company again.

A no-sail order for cruise ships was only supposed to last for a month, and the risk of catching the virus seemed greater onshore than on a liner with no positive cases and a good-paying job. So he took the deal.

But after the mandate was extended for another 100 days, the picture grew far more grim. Janicijevic and thousands of other foreign workers were stuck aboard for months, he said, unable to make any money but blocked from returning to their home countries. Many were ordered to keep cooking, cleaning and doing laundry in hopes of paychecks that never came.

“They kept us on the ship like captives, prisoners,” the 44-year-old native of Serbia told The Washington Post. “You work for food, your moves are restricted, and they still don’t let you leave.”

On Tuesday, Janicijevic was named as the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit filed against Bahamas Paradise, charging that crew members were “effectively held hostage.” The cruise line, the suit said, denied them guaranteed severance pay, delayed sending them home and pressured them into signing misleading agreements.

Bahamas Paradise did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida.

Michael A. Winkleman, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs, told The Post that the cruise company’s failure to pay the workers was equivalent to forced labor and slavery — the product of a system that preys on the crew members who power the industry.

Aboard Bahamas Paradise’s two vessels, which ferry passengers on two-night journeys, the foreign-born crew members perform in shows, wash dishes and do every other task in between, on contracts that last about eight months.

For staff hailing largely from South and Southeast Asia and the Balkans, these cruise jobs represent a plum opportunity to earn a larger paycheck than they could ever make back home. Maritime law means companies are exempt from U.S. labor regulations, Winkleman said.

“All cruise lines have tremendous power over their crew members, who will do anything to keep their jobs. Anything,” he said. “They can treat them [workers] like garbage, with little or no recourse.”

For weeks after the coronavirus was first detected on a ship in the Pacific Ocean, carrying the disease around the globe, other vessels continued sailing as usual. In March, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cracked down with an urgent order: All cruises were to stop sailing immediately, the agency said, for one month.

At first, Janicijevic wasn’t worried. He had spent more than a decade working as a casino dealer on ships for a handful of companies, and he was reaping the benefits of a promotion to work in casino surveillance.

On March 17, as crew members were crammed onto just one ship, supervisors cut their contracts short and pressured them into signing an agreement, Janicijevic alleges. Whoever refused, the managers told crew, would, at best, be last in line for a contract once things returned to normal — and at worst, would be barred from getting hired by Bahamas Paradise at all.

“I voluntary request to stay on board instead of choosing to fly home,” the document read, according to the lawsuit, adding the crew member would have to “stay onboard without pay until the government has lifted restrictions … or until Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line returns to normal operation.”

It quickly became clear that the latter situation wasn’t going to happen anytime soon. In April, the CDC extended its no-sail order for another 100 days, and Janicijevic and other crew members aboard the Grand Celebration grew increasingly restless.

The staff was provided food and water, but everything else — from soap to snacks — had to come out of their own pockets, he said, even as the company kept delaying two months’ worth of severance pay it owed the workers.

“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.”

After the Miami Herald published a story on the ship’s situation, CEO Oneil Khosa visited the vessel in June and promised every crew member still onboard a thank-you check of $1,000 by July 25, the date by which the cruise line planned to set sail again.

But that pay never came either, Janicijevic said. With infections spreading aboard other cruise ships, the CDC had barred crew members from returning home on commercial flights. The only way to get back to their countries was on an expensive charter flight.

Despite repeated requests from crew members, the lawsuit says, Bahamas Paradise refused to arrange such trips, saying the company did not have enough money to afford them. As housekeeping and kitchen staff kept working for months longer, the CDC pushed its cruise ban until October.

Janicijevic finally managed to get back to his family in Serbia on June 21. His vessel never reported an outbreak of the virus, and under revised government guidance, he and other crew members got the green light to disembark and head to the airport.

But, he added, the company has yet to pay him a single cent of what he is owed.