Floating Abominations: Exposing the Cruise Ship Industry

Cruise Pollution Shields SmallNicola Hill’s analysis of what’s happening in this industry:

Every year, over 19 million people, 12 million from North America, ready their sea legs and set sail on a variety of cruise ships around the world. The global cruise ship industry earns upwards of $36 billion in revenue each year, a number that is set to increase, as the number of passengers continues to grow. However, below decks, the lucrative industry hides a host of human rights abuses alongside exploitative practices and an appalling environmental record. Though the responsibility to change falls on the cruise line companies, travellers can and should send a message that such behaviour is unacceptable.

One of the biggest industry players, Royal Caribbean Cruises, has a particularly abysmal track record, with employees facing conditions comparable to slave labor and receiving a score of D from Friends of the Earth in its 2014 annual report card on environmental impact. Despite being criticized by governments, human rights organizations, and media entities, Royal Caribbean has done little to change its behavior beyond updating its “Code of Business Conduct and Ethics.”

International law is quite robust on the topic of maritime law with conventions under both the International Labor Organization (ILO) and International Maritime Organization meant to legislate safety, labor, and environmental concerns in international waters. Notable conventions include: the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea; the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, and the 2006 International Maritime Convention, that requires “the certification of seafarer’s working and living conditions.” However, as with human rights and labor law generally, states are responsible for holding cruise lines accountable to international requirements and standards. Unfortunately, it has proven near impossible for states to enforce domestic and international laws on cruise lines when they are in international waters.

Major U.S.-based cruise lines take advantage of a provision in U.S. tax code that allows shipping companies to incorporate overseas and sail under the flags of foreign countries. For example, the largest international cruise line, Carnival, is headquartered in Miami, but incorporated in Panama; its British subsidiary, Princess Cruises, is incorporated in Bermuda. Carnival’s late founder, Ted Arison, was worth an estimated $5.6 billion in 1999, after paying next to nothing in U.S. taxes during his career. Arison renounced his U.S citizenship in 1990 and relocated to Israel, ostensibly to avoid estate and inheritance taxes. According to Forbes, his son, Micky Arison is now worth $7.3 billion. Royal Caribbean is also headquartered in Miami, but incorporated in Liberia; meaning that it too pays virtually no U.S. taxes and it is held to less stringent Liberian labor and safety laws. Ironically, Royal Caribbean does not offer any cruises to countries in Africa, let alone to Liberia.

Royal Caribbean bypasses U.S. labor codes and benefits from weaker rule of law in Liberia to employ crew members from lower income countries without providing them with proper work permits, often confiscating identification documents including passports, and requiring them to work below deck for well over 10 hours a day, if not longer, for pay that is dismally low. Pay can be as low as $1.25 an hour with tips often withheld. Savings get passed onto passengers in the form of cheap tickets and perks. Meanwhile, employees suffering from inhumane treatment and the lowest wages are kept out of sight below deck, where tourist eyes and tips cannot reach them. Consequently, the average tourist only sees the front-end staff and has little idea of the slave-like conditions occurring below their feet.

Major cruise lines are excellent at putting on a show on board their luxurious vessels with flashy entertainment and well-stocked buffets, but also on ethics and human rights standards. In a warm letter prefacing the 2014 version of Royal Caribbean’s “Code of Business Conduct and Ethics,” CEO Richard Fain emphasizes the company’s “commitment to integrity and ethical culture;” he believes that the company’s “values are an essential link to [its] long-standing success as an industry-leading cruise line.” The Code states: “we comply with the law,” “we work together with respect and dignity,” “we support human rights and core labor principles,” and “we protect the environment.” While it is a positive step that Royal Caribbean is committed to seeking “ever-improved ethical behavior,” the company’s actions do not line up with its lofty rhetoric, as evidenced by the many times it has been in the spotlight and fined for abuses.

All ships have to dock at some point, opening a window for states to act. Consider a recent example when Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas underwent labor inspections while docked in Rotterdam, in the Netherlands. Dutch labor inspectors ultimately fined Royal Caribbean €600,000 ($760,000) for violating Dutch labor laws and the International Maritime Convention, citing that at least 85 employees, mainly from the Philippines and South America, lacked proper work permits and were working excessive hours. However, it seems unlikely that Royal Caribbean will change its behavior any time soon, as the company subsequently rerouted a cruise ship scheduled for dry dock repairs in Rotterdam to Cadiz in Spain. Perhaps Spain will undertake similar actions, but as long as there are states that turn a blind eye to violations, the cruise industry does not have much incentive to improve.

Indeed, Royal Caribbean actively takes advantage of weak and unstable governments to make its billions not only where it is incorporated, but where it takes passengers. For several years, Royal Caribbean promoted its resort Labadee as an exotic oasis on the island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean. Labadee is actually in Haiti, a beautiful but extremely poor country that has been plagued by political strife, economic ruin, and natural disaster for decades. After much public outrage, Royal Caribbean now more accurately advertises Labadee as being in Haiti. However, the company continues to blatantly exploit and exclude the Haitian people in running its resort. Labadee is an isolated strip of Haitian coastline that Royal Caribbean rents from the government in addition to paying $10 per tourist visitor. Last year, Haiti’s Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe approved a deal with Carnival to develop a similar resort in Tortuga. At the Labadee resort, passengers use their cruise ship cards for all purchases except for at an “authentic artisan market” where Haitians sell various tourist trinkets. Beyond those “artisans,” who are the only Haitian workers present, the Haitian people are left out of the economic benefits of such a lucrative resort. Royal Caribbean shamefully exploits the Haitian landscape while paying an ineffectual and corrupt government who certainly is not trickling down economic gains to the population; Carnival is soon to do the same.

Finally, taking a cruise is more harmful to the environment than most other forms of travel and, since cruises are predominantly for pleasure, unjustifiably negligent. Cruise ships produce at least twice as much in emissions per capita as airplanes. Cruise ships also pollute through oil seepage (it is estimated that nearly one-third of the more than 300 million gallons of petroleum products that reach the world’s oceans each year is the result of marine transportation discharges unrelated to collisions and other accidents) and although cruise ships treat sewage before discharging it into the sea, the U.S. EPA has found that many cruise ships are treating sewage with old technology, resulting in discharge that often contains significant amounts of fecal bacteria, heavy metals, and nutrients in excess of federal water quality standards. Friends of the Earth Hong Kong recently denounced Royal Caribbean, estimating that the company committed upwards of thirty violations between 1992 and 2009, receiving fines of more than $30 million. Its industry counterparts are no better, of the sixteen in Friends’ ranking, Disney Cruises scored the highest with a “C+.”

In truth, Royal Caribbean and its peers in the cruise ship industry are unlikely to make changes when millions of passengers continue to support them with their money each year. However, as the worst atrocities occur out of sight, the average customer has no idea that their cruise is built on slave labor conditions, exploitation, and environmental degradation. This begs the question: what can consumers do to demand better from the cruise ship industry?

  1. Don’t go on cruises.
  2. But if you do, pick your cruise line carefully and avoid the worst violators like Royal Caribbean and Carnival along with their subsidiaries. A quick visit to Wikipedia will tell you if your cruise line is actually part of Royal Caribbean or Carnival.
  3. There are several useful websites out there to help you make an informed choice. The following are excellent references and quick reads: Ethical Traveler, Friends of the Earth, Responsible Vacation, Cruise Law News, and the Business and Human Rights Resource Center, which lists legal actions brought against companies. And of course, Tourism Concern has a wealth of information on traveling responsibly and sustainably.
  4. Remember those below deck and steer clear of any cruise line that has a record for mistreating its employees.
  5. Be a traveler, not a tourist. Make sure your travel purchases benefit local people, not tourism moguls and corrupt governments. Investigate the activities offered at cruise destinations and find out if you’re able to travel beyond resort limits.

Above all, do your research. The average person spends a great deal of time researching where they want to vacation and how to get the cheapest tickets. Channel some of that consumer energy into looking behind cruise line company practices. International tourism can and should be a great force for good, broadening travelers’ horizons, fostering cultural exchange, and bringing economic development to destination countries. Demand more of the cruise line industry; there is a lot of room for improvement.



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