The Hidden Horrors of Cruise Ships


By Eve Contant, Barbie Latza Nadeau

news-the-daily-beastThe captain of the Costa Concordia may soon stand trial for manslaughter and abandoning ship. But industry critics tell Eve Conant and Barbie Latza Nadeau that there are worse dangers lurking at sea: ‘slavery’-like labor conditions, flu outbreaks, and more. What you should know before you set sail.

On the morning after the Costa Concordia hit a reef off an Italian island and capsized, cruise-ship waiters still in their soaked uniforms were separated from the regular passengers and loaded onto a bus, to be shipped off to separate hotels on the mainland. Before boarding, one employee from the Philippines named Miguel lamented to Newsweek that he’d lost everything on the ship. “We were paid in cash, and my whole savings from the last six months is in my locker. I was going to send that money to my wife and daughters.” The waiter was luckier than several of his crewmates, five of whom perished, including Erika Fani Soriamolina, a young Peruvian waitress who gave her life jacket to an elderly man who escaped unharmed.

The rest of the 32 killed in the Concordia accident were passengers waiting for crew to lead them to safety. In April divers sent a mini-submarine under the vessel to search the lifeboat deck that is now, effectively, at the bottom of the capsized ship. There they found eight bodies, including those of Gerald and Barbara Heil, a retired couple from Minnesota, and a 5-year-old Italian girl who had floated to the top of the elevator shaft that led to the deck. “They were there on that deck waiting for someone to rescue them, waiting for a lifeboat to come back,” the diver who helped recover the bodies tells Newsweek. “They had trust in the system, but it failed them. You try not to think of the horror when they realized no one was coming back for them.”

With a Tuscan court set to consider whether Capt. Francesco Schettino should stand trial for manslaughter and abandoning ship, Schettino appeared in an interview on Italian TV July 10 and said he was sorry for the accident, explaining that he had been distracted by a phone call when it occurred. Schettino, who described the collision as a “banal accident” in which “destiny” played a role, denies the charges against him and said in the interview that others should share the blame because the ship was under the command of another officer at the time.

But it’s Schettino’s actions after the collision that will be dissected in court. As the ship was sinking, the captain called his superiors in Genoa, Italy, more than a dozen times and asked for helicopters and a barge—all while lying to the Italian Coast Guard about the gravity of the incident. “It’s only a blackout” Schettino told the Coast Guard commander in a conversation that was taped and later broadcast. Meantime, worried passengers were flooding the emergency landlines, reporting that the ship was dark and listing; one passenger described how water was pouring down the stairs that led to the lower staterooms. The captain lost a valuable hour before finally pulling the “abandon ship” alarm. Meanwhile, his 1,000-strong crew was having to take charge with no authority to evacuate and little training. “The crew was given mixed messages. They knew the ship was sinking, but their captain had ultimate authority so they were caught,” says Franco Gabrielli, Italy’s civil-protection chief.

The cruise industry hopes you won’t worry about such horrors the next time you’re lured by one of those Internet ads for a $299 voyage to the Bahamas. “Obviously, I am very sorry it happened,” Micky Arison, CEO of Costa Cruises parent Carnival, told The Miami Herald in March, his first interview after the accident. “When you have 100 ships out there, sometimes unfortunate things happen, but as I said, it was an accident. We as a company do everything we can to encourage the highest of safety standards.” The Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) announced new policies in April that spokesman David Peikin says “go beyond even the strictest of regulatory requirements” to include more life jackets in heavily populated parts of ships, and minimizing access of unnecessary personnel to the bridge (this later policy is thought to be a direct reaction to Captain Schettino’s entertaining a female guest at the time of Concordia’s wreck). CLIA is still in the middle of its post–Concordia Cruise Industry Operational Safety Review, which has resulted in six new policies so far, including a requirement that mandatory emergency muster drills be conducted before sailing off. Says Peikin: “The cruise industry is a highly regulated industry, and the safety of our passengers and crews is our highest priority.”

But industry critics—including plenty of passengers and crew members—beg to differ, saying that cruise operators have a long and continuing history of putting the bottom line above safety. “Can you imagine if the aviation industry said, ‘Hey, we have a new policy: we’ll do emergency instructions before we take off,’?” says attorney James Walker, who spent years as a defense lawyer for cruise operators and now represents crew members in suits against their employers. “The new proposals are limited and disappointing and reflect that there are greater problems at hand.”

What vacationers don’t think about when they take a cruise is how, precisely, the industry has managed to keep its prices so low and still rake in huge profits in a down economy. The quick answer: it controls labor costs.

Though most companies like Carnival are headquartered in the U.S., they are able to skirt U.S. labor laws and taxes by incorporating overseas and flying foreign flags, called “flags of convenience.” Their crews are primarily foreign, with many hailing from Third World countries and knowing only rudimentary English—long considered a safety concern for communications during a disaster. Workers from the Philippines make up the largest percentage of employees, according to the Cruise Lines International Association. Asked what percentage of crew, generally, are U.S. citizens, a CLIA spokeswoman tells Newsweek, “It is a small percentage.”

It’s no wonder that few Americans work on cruise ships. Crew members are routinely taken advantage of, working months on end with few days off, often laboring under unsafe conditions and provided with poor medical care when they are ill, say critics like Miami attorney Charles Lipcon. “It’s like slavery,” Lipcon says. “It’s the modern-day version of the sweatshop.”

But the crew will work hard for every penny, and, separated from their families, agree to the long hours. Some percentage of them are likely in debt, having fallen prey to unscrupulous agents who help them get these shipboard jobs in exchange for an advance cut of their salaries (up to $4,000 in some cases, says a maritime attorney). As with the underground labor market in the U.S., crew members generally make more money than they would at home. A CLIA spokesperson notes that “crew members are often paid higher wages and provided more opportunity than is available in their home countries. When working on a cruise ship, expenses are kept low, considering housing, utilities, food, and medical and dental care are provided all by the cruise lines. In fact, 80 percent of crew members return for multiple work engagements.” Carnival boasts that “many shipboard team members support entire families in their home countries with their salary while others have used their income to send children to college, build homes, and establish businesses.”

A subsidiary of Carnival in the U.K., P&O Cruises, recently announced it would pay its crew members a basic salary of 75 pence an hour (about $1.20 U.S.), with automatic gratuities added to the passengers’ bills. But rather than forwarding the tips to the crew, the cruise line has threatened to withhold them from crew members whose customer-service rating falls below 92 percent, according to the British press. There is little fear of lack of workers; Carnival U.K. CEO David Dingle told The Guardian that “we have a manning office in Mumbai. There are queues out on to the street.”

“It’s extreme capitalism,” says Stefan Mueller-Dombois, an inspector with the International Transport Workers’ Federation. His group has been trying to create a global wage rate and to improve working conditions for crew no matter where a ship is flagged. He’s also pushing for diversity training to correct a castelike system of labor on ships: Filipino and Asian workers usually get the least desirable jobs; Italians and Greeks are in the managerial positions. (Lower-tiered crew members are nicknamed “the fish” because they spend most of their time below deck, says M.L. Meier, an American who worked on a Celebrity cruise in 2008.) As for limits on hours worked, Mueller-Dombois says, “They are regularly violated.” Rajasingam Krishnan, a cook on the Costa Concordia says, “We were supposed to work 11 hours a day, but I always worked for more than 14.” (Costa maintains that the average workday for its crew is 11 hours.)

It’s the same story on many other ships. Jamaican native Noel Everett spent 13 years as a senior stateroom steward for Norwegian Cruise Lines, working nine-month tours with three days off. Now he is part of a multiplaintiff lawsuit alleging that he and his co-workers had to hire and pay helpers out of their own salaries to meet unrealistic workloads. “There was no way two of us could clean 34 rooms between 10:15 and 11:30 a.m.,” he says. A spokeswoman for Norwegian says, “We do not comment on litigation matters.”

Not only is an exhausted crew less likely to perform well in an emergency like the Concordia, they are more likely to get sick and spread disease on an otherwise uneventful cruise. “You get a flu bug, a bunch of run-down folks, and it spreads like wildfire,” says Mueller-Dombois. This past February, several hundred passengers and more than two dozen crew onboard a Princess ship suffered from a norovirus outbreak; it was the second Princess vessel to see an outbreak in the space of one week. Even though outbreaks of norovirus, E. coli, and bedbugs are not uncommon, often passengers are unaware of the health risks. When Meier worked on the Celebrity cruise ship, he says he learned of a norovirus outbreak but was told that if he spoke of it to passengers, “it would result in my termination.” Shari Cecil, an American who spent a year and a half with Norwegian, says she was twice quarantined for norovirus, and recalls how during one outbreak, the ship switched to “silver service” instead of the buffet, so that unsuspecting passengers wouldn’t share utensils and spread the disease. “We were told not to mention the outbreak, but to tell the passengers we were just trying to improve customer service,” Cecil says. A CLIA spokeswoman says, “Employees are not directed by our member lines to intentionally withhold information about health concerns from passengers aboard their ships, although we cannot speculate on the facts of those specific circumstances.”

While many cruise-line infirmaries are state of the art, medical care can still be second rate, and cruise operators have limited responsibility for medical malpractice by their doctors or nurses, says attorney Walker. A Texas family recently filed for negligence under the Death on the High Seas Act against Carnival after their mother severed an artery during a fall last year and bled to death as crew allegedly took more than an hour to get her to the ship’s infirmary, failing to locate a stretcher and eventually finding a water-rescue canoe that didn’t fit into the ship’s elevator.

Krishnan, the Concordia cook, has plenty to say about the care cruise lines provide to the injured and sick. The 27-year-old, who supported five family members back home in India on his $1,580-a-month job as “first cook for soups and pastas,” recalls how he was handed antibiotics but “was forced to work even when I had fevers” in order to avoid losing his job or having his pay severely docked.

That was nothing compared with what happened on Jan. 13. During the shipwreck, Krishnan says, a faulty Concordia-supplied helmet slipped and failed to protect his head as he slammed into a window. Shivering uncontrollably and disoriented from head pain, he tried to help passengers into a lifeboat and was eventually herded along with other crew into various hotels before being sent home to India. Hospitalized there, Krishnan was diagnosed with a seizure disorder stemming from the accident, and has since suffered severe fevers and ongoing head and back pain. Now unemployed, he is trying to team up with other Indian crew to sue Costa and Carnival for more medical compensation, and has started a Facebook page for Indian crew members seeking compensation for everything from lost valuables to injuries that have prevented them from further employment.

Whether or not he can work again is a question. But at least he has a break from what he says were months without a day off, extra hours worked with no pay, and constant exhaustion. The problem, Krishnan believes, is a culture where ship superiors and their corporate managers don’t recognize the most basic needs of their crew. “They never feel that we are humans,” he says. “They believe we are machines.” Costa says it considers all its employees a “precious resource whose rights must be safeguarded as an ethical and moral imperative.”