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For Cruise Ship Workers, Voyages Are No Vacations

Labor: Many endure low pay and spartan conditions. Ship owners say the jobs provide opportunities to the poor.


Several cruise line executives contend that the constant stream of new ships and the growing demand for labor are driving improvements in wages and conditions. Vance Gulliksen, a spokesman for Carnival, said the line has increased pay in recent years and created a retirement plan in 1998.

Language Barriers Can Be Deadly

Because companies recruit in dozens of countries, plaintiffs' attorneys and federal transportation investigators have questioned whether crew members can properly communicate with their shipmates and passengers, especially during emergencies.

The language barrier may have contributed directly to the serious injury of Polish repairman Marek Czerniak. Court records show that Czerniak, 40, was working aboard the Norwegian Cruise Lines ship Norway in February 1997 when his boss directed him in English to prepare to weld an area of the smokestack.

But Czerniak, who said he neither speaks nor reads English, claims he did not realize that repairmen were forbidden from that kind of smokestack work while the vessel was in operation. As he stood in the funnel, a burst of hot water and steam blasted him, severely burning his back, legs and one arm.

Czerniak sued, and settled last year for a $2.5-million payment from the cruise line. The line's attorney called the case "an unfortunate situation" in which Czerniak was partially to blame. Yet compared to some other workers, Czerniak was lucky.

When fire broke out in the laundry of the Universe Explorer about 3 a.m. July 27, 1996, off the coast of Alaska, smoke billowed into passageways and cabins in the crew's quarters. Four Filipino stewards and a Central American galley worker died. Fifty-five of their shipmates and a passenger were injured.

A review by the National Transportation Safety Board found poor coordination in the crew's emergency response, and several passengers said they had difficulty understanding the limited English spoken by many crew members.

The ship, known for its "semester at sea" program for students, is operated by World Explorer Cruises in San Francisco. Ron Valentine, the director of operations, said that since the fire, the company has improved safety procedures and passed U.S. Coast Guard inspections.

The International Council of Cruise Lines, the industry's trade organization, asserts that cruising remains one of the safest modes of travel. A 1996 Coast Guard study found that over a 10-year period, not one passenger death because of a marine incident was reported on any cruise vessel operating from a U.S. port.

When someone is injured, cruise lines turn to their on-board doctors for immediate care, but those physicians do not have to be licensed in the U.S. or other industrial countries because of the ships' foreign-flag status.

In serious cases requiring surgery or care over a sustained period, the lines often send injured workers to foreign countries or their homelands--a move that plaintiffs' attorneys decry as a money-saving maneuver and a way to prevent crew members from contacting U.S. lawyers if things go wrong.

Medical care in many foreign nations, they argue, is not just cheaper but also is inferior to that available in many industrial countries. "As soon as a worker is injured," said Miami plaintiffs' attorney William Huggett, "they abandon him on a Third World trash heap like a used tire."

Court records show that a Costa Rican cleaning woman contracted gangrene while under the care of Panamanian doctors and had to have her hand amputated. Another plaintiff, a Caribbean utility man, says a ship's doctor handed him a pair of gloves and told him to conduct his own rectal exam.

In May 1998, Antonio Cassarino, 48, an Italian plumber, twisted his back while working aboard the Holiday, a Carnival ship based in Los Angeles. His attorney, Howard D. Sacks of San Pedro, said the veteran crewman underwent three operations in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, purportedly to remove a damaged lumbar disc.

But a Long Beach orthopedist who has treated Cassarino concluded that the surgeries were unnecessary because Cassarino suffered only a sprained back.

Sacks said his client wanted to be treated in the United States or Italy, but Carnival sent him to Puerto Vallarta, where he maintained a residence. Earlier this year, Carnival settled with Cassarino on the eve of trial in Long Beach Superior Court. The agreement is confidential.

Passenger line executives contend that it is logical and humane to send workers to their home countries for medical care. Language barriers have to be overcome in the United States, they say, and crew members are more comfortable near friends and family.

Few Union Gains on Passenger Ships

Industry critics say that pay, medical care and working conditions could improve if labor unions build on their beachhead. But among the dozens of unions around the world that have shipboard collective bargaining agreements, few, if any, can claim dramatic gains aboard passenger vessels.

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