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Thousands of cruise ship crews still stuck at sea, reports of suicides and hunger strike

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Cruise ships once bragged about onboard experiences being paradise at sea. Now for thousands of crew members, they are floating hells.

Several weeks ago, an American cruise line staffer slipped off a ship docked for supplies at a US port. After almost two months of floating in limbo, and with no date when crew would be able to disembark, the employee chanced an unauthorized departure. Unlike most cruise staff, the healthy AWOL crew member made it back home. 

Most crew are still stuck on ships. With 100,000-plus anchored-at-sea, companies have taken months to begin to repatriate thousands of its employees. The waiting game has become such an agonizing experience that it has taken a toll on those still on board.

‘Stuck like chuck’

After flare ups of Covid-19 infections were reported on cruise ships, countries prohibited vessels to dock. When departures were granted, the priority went to evacuating passengers after quarantine. 

Once ships received clearance, “Healthy Americans [could] get off. Sick people [had] to stay on board. Crew are stuck like chuck,” explained a former cruise line employee who speaks to crew members still on board ships aimlessly sailing close to ports.

In US waters alone, ABC reported that 120 ocean liners house 80,000 crew members. Royal Caribbean, the largest cruise line in the world said in statement that they have already returned 12,000 staff home through “on commercial flights, charter flights and direct sailings.

While crew members are leaving, the process is slow and no one knows the exact date they’ll return to their countries. Mostly, this is caused by cruise companies delaying footing the bill for travel expenses for a staff who live all over the world. Nor do companies want to adhere to CDC guidelines on disembarkation which place full accountability on the maritime corporations. 

Another major economic hit to cruise companies was being left out of receiving fiscal assistance from the US stimulus package. Because most are foreign entities that have escaped US taxes for decades, they did not qualify. While there are American, British and Australian staff who work on passenger ships, much of the crews come from low wealth countries, or are part of the working poor such as: Philippines, Jamaica, Ukraine, Malaysia, Bangladesh, India, Barbados, Indonesia, Brazil, Hungary, and even Italy. For decades, the cruising industry has been one of the few employment avenues for citizens from struggling economies. However, seafaring companies selected low wealth companies to keep employees wages low.

Now they must relocate crew who they’ve underpaid, which is a financial disaster for companies hit hard by the pandemic. In the interim, crew members remain confined to small cabin quarters on standby. Now reports of suicides, AWOL and even most recently, a hunger strike are extreme measures taken by staff.

Carnival Corporation CEO, Arnold W. Donald

On April 29, Carnival Corporation announced that it would gradually repatriate thousands of crew members to their homes using 18 ships. In the statement, they detail:

The ships have been at various U.S. homeports provisioning supplies and bunkering fuel for their journeys.  Certain crew will join ships using water shuttles off the coast of The Bahamas.  Once completed, nine ships will sail to their destinations with crew members from North American-based ships on board.  The remaining nine ships will spend most of their time in anchorage positions in The Bahamas or Panama and eventually all ships will reduce their crew numbers to safe operational manning levels.

Although a plan has been presented, crew members question the decisions made to keep ships afloat when Covid-19 slowly crept around the world. Cruise companies sent out boats even after the Center for Disease Control warned them on March 8. A spokesperson for Carnival told Bloomberg news that they were under no “legal obligation” to comply with the CDC’s warning. 

However, Carnival did not need a cautionary message from the CDC. China, one of Carnival’s biggest markets, started to shutter its sea and air ports at the end of January. On January 23, Chinese officials issued an order to quarantine the Wuhan region in China. From their reports, millions of citizens and foreign visitors, many of Chinese descent, went to celebrate Chinese New Year, and were potentially exposed. By February, the pandemic bloomed in Italy from those who visited China.  

Plus, one of Carnival’s ships, the Diamond Princess, reported infections after embarking on a 16-day trip from California to Southeast Asia. Nonetheless, in light of a pending pandemic, cruise companies maintained operations when they knew the likelihood that it would soon make its way aboard its ships. Now, they face a congressional investigation on how they handled the Diamond Princess in which 800 passengers became sick with Covid-19 resulting in 8 deaths

Even as crews are still anchored-at-sea with no landing in sight, Carnival has put out discounted cruise packages for the summer. They reported record bookings of 600 percent increase.

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