Cruise companies accused of refusing to let stranded crew disembark due to cost

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Some cruise companies have refused to agree to rules that would allow tens of thousands of stranded crew back to land, citing concerns about cost and potential legal consequences, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The largest trade association for the cruise industry has called the CDC’s requirements for disembarkation “impractical”.

The standoff comes amid a deteriorating situation on many ships around the world and a rising death toll of crew members.

More than 100,000 crew workers are still trapped on cruise ships globally, at least 50 of which have Covid-19 infections. This number includes around 80,000 crew members on 120 ships that are in international waters near the US waiting to disembark.

Some major cruise operators have blamed the CDC for not allowing trapped crew to leave ships. But the health agency said it “stand[s] ready to approve these requests with same-day turnaround in most cases”, and has urged staff to contact cruise liners about disembarkation.

The CDC confirmed it had detected hundreds of Covid-19 and Covid-like illness cases in crew since March in US waters, resulting in the deaths of at least six crew.

A doctor on the Norwegian Gem, operated by Norwegian Cruise Line, died aboard the ship from a “respiratory illness” on Thursday.

The Miami Herald obtained internal Norwegian Cruise Line documents confirming the doctor’s death and assuring crew on the ship that he had died in his sleep from “cardio-respiratory arrest”, but had “no symptoms of Covid-19”. The Herald reported that the cruise company did not respond to their inquiries. Norwegian Cruise Line also did not respond to the Guardian’s request for comment.

A third crew member on the Oasis of the Seas, currently off the coast of Florida, died in hospital on Sunday. The death of Carlos Baluran, who worked the night shift in the vessel’s incinerator, comes after the death of waiter Dexter Joyosa and Indonesian waiter Iputu Sugiartha in the last two weeks on the same ship.

Iputu Sugiartha (top left), an Indonesian waiter on the Oasis of the Seas, died ashore at a hospital in Fort Lauderdale on 20 April 2020. Carlos Baluran (top right), an incinerator room worker on the Oasis, died on 3 May 2020 in a hospital in Broward County. Royal Caribbean bar waiter Dexter Joyosa (bottom right), from the Philippines, died in a hospital in Fort Lauderdale on 18 April. Indonesian crew member Puyol Puuyy Yool (bottom left), housekeeper on the Symphony of the Seas, died at a hospital in Broward County. He was just 27 years of age.

In a statement, the CDC told the Guardian that it is “allowing crew members to disembark from cruise ships in US waters and return home if cruise lines submit a signed attestation stating that they have complied with requirements to safely disembark their crew members”.

It said: “These requirements include ensuring safe transportation by non-commercial means, providing cloth face coverings to crew members or ensuring they have their own, and providing instructions to crew members to stay home for 14 days after they reach their destination.

“CDC shared this information with all cruise lines in US waters on 23 April 2020 to help crew members return home safely. Since then, CDC has received and approved signed attestations to disembark crew from 15 ships.

“Some cruise lines have been unwilling to comply with the requirements to safely disembark their crew. Reasons include unwillingness to sign the attestation because of the legal consequences, and not wanting to pay for noncommercial transportation.”

But Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), the largest trade association for the cruise industry, said some of the CDC’s requirements were “impractical”.

“To require employers to guarantee that every employee outside the workplace will fulfil all of the CDC’s stated requirements, including not having any interaction with the public whatsoever, with criminal sanctions at stake, is both unprecedented and impractical,” it said in a statement.

On Monday, the first wrongful death lawsuit for a crew member was filed on behalf of the family of an Indonesian housekeeper on the Symphony of the Seas, operated by Royal Caribbean. The suit alleges that the company failed to protect staff by not implementing social distancing measures on board by allowing crew to hold parties and eat together.

Pujiyoko in hospital

The company replied in a statement that it was working with authorities around the world to repatriate thousands of staff. It confirmed it had agreed to CDC restrictions to repatriate staff, and said it declined to comment on pending litigation.

Asked what support it was providing crew in the wake of the three deaths on the Oasis of the Seas, it said: “We have our Employee Assistance Program that crew can call 24 hours a day and is confidential.”

Carnival Cruise Line, which announced plans to restart operations at the beginning of August, said it would use 18 ships to repatriate more than 10,000 healthy crew members to Asia, Africa, Europe, India and Latin America.

“The safety and wellbeing of our team members continues to be a top priority. Given the pause in our operations, we are committed to getting our crew members safely home to their families. We sincerely thank them for their hard work, patience and understanding during this process,” said Christine Duffy, president of Carnival Cruise Line.

Alongside more than 100,000 crew, CLIA confirmed that 50 passengers remain at sea on five cruise ships – Celebrity Eclipse, Costa Deliziosa, Queen Mary 2, Caribbean Princess and Coral Princess – as of 29 April. So far, CLIA has recorded 2,789 confirmed cases of Covid-19 onboard 33 CLIA oceangoing cruise ships, but could not provide data relating to crew.

“It’s a shame that it comes down to dollars and cents,” said John Hickey, a maritime lawyer in Miami, who has represented both the cruise companies and, most recently, cruise crew members.

Q&A What are flags of convenience?
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A ship flying a flag of convenience means the owner has registered the vessel in a country other than their own. The ship flies the ensign or flag of that country, known as the flag state and operates under its laws, typically laxer than the owner’s own.

For a ship owner, the advantage of this arrangement includes comparatively fewer regulations, lower employment requirements, and thus cheaper labour, cheaper registration fees and lower or no taxes.

For crew members, the disadvantages tend towards lower working standards, fewer rights and little protection. They are opposed by the International Transport Workers’ Federation.

Panama, which has the largest ship registry globally, followed by Liberia, operates an “open registry”, allowing foreign owners to register ships under its flag. It guarantees anonymity to the owners, making it difficult for them to be held to account.

The practice began in the 1920s in the US, when owners of cruise ships registered their vessels in Panama so that they could serve their passengers alcohol during Prohibition.

Karen McVeigh, senior reporter

He said the situation facing crews now is rooted in the cruise industry’s avoidance of US governance. Even though the largest cruise lines are headquartered in the US and serve largely American clientele, they avoid US labour law and other regulation by registering outside the US and sailing their ships under foreign flags.

“These crew members are like refugees now. They are stuck between a rock and a hard place,” he said. “The cruise lines think they can do anything they want with these folks and not treat them like human beings and not get them back to their homes.”

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