The cruise industry has been deeply affected by the coronavirus pandemic, and with the recent extension of a voluntary sail suspension in U.S. waters, it will be several months until passengers can return.
But for many crew members, a lack of passengers hasn’t translated into an opportunity to go home, with thousands currently stranded on ships around the world.
Some crew members have been on board for months, even after their contracts have expired, and have no idea when they’ll be able to leave. Some of the non-working crew are getting paid a fraction of their former salaries, but others say that they have not been paid despite not being able to leave, reports USA Today.
Crew members for Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line have sued their employer for what they say is the equivalent of forced labor, and their attorney, Michael Winkleman, says he believes “similar issues are happening across the industry with crew members stuck on the ships for nearly five months now.”
According to the U.S. Coast Guard, over 12,000 crew members are currently on 57 cruise ships in U.S. waters. In May, over 70,000 crew members were in the same position.
Jason McDonald, a spokesperson for the CDC, says that while the agency is “allowing crew members to disembark from all cruise ships in U.S. waters,” not all staff are able to leave their ships as they require a certain number of crew to maintain onboard operations. Others are allowed to leave their ships, but because of travel restrictions, can’t go home.
Adam Goldstein, the global chair of the Cruise Lines International Association, says that they represent crew from at least 130 countries, and repatriating them has caused “extreme” challenges due to government-imposed travel restrictions. Roughly 250,000 crew members around the globe have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
"There are a lot of countries you would normally take air transportation or might find yourself going from home port to home country on ground transportation,” says Goldstein. But as borders closed, crew members could no longer access normal routes to go home. Repatriation is possible, but many countries have a limit on how many people can return at a time, and where repatriation flights originate.
Though the ships are devoid of passengers, crew members don’t have access to the amenities on board. "Social distancing is in place at all times, and we are not allowed to socialize much. Gyms, bars or any space that promotes socializing are closed, and we are not allowed to be out of the rooms between 11 p.m. til 7 a.m.,” Akash Dookhun says. The Celebrity Cruises stateroom attendant is currently on Royal Caribbean’s Voyager of the Seas, where he was transferred in May from the Celebrity Solstice.
Dookhun, who is from Mauritius, expects that repatriation to his country could take until November if it continues at its current rate. Though he has reached out to government organizations about his situation, he says he has not heard back.