Update April 16, 1 p.m. MT: After this article was originally published, the crew members said they and about 18 of their colleagues have been told they will be flown home in the coming week but the rest of the crew will remain aboard indefinitely.
The original article is below.
Canadian crew members of a luxury cruise ship say they are effectively being held captive aboard the vessel, being assigned work without pay and threatened that their lines of communication will be cut off if they speak out — allegations the company denies.
The crew members aren’t sure when they’ll be able to safely return home. They are worried about plans to merge their crew with other crews, including one that had a confirmed case of COVID-19, before sailing to the United Kingdom for eventual repatriation.
The workers are aboard the Silver Cloud, a 254-passenger ship owned by Silversea Cruises, a luxury cruise line based in Monaco. Royal Caribbean, the world’s largest cruise line by revenue, owns a two-thirds stake in Silversea.
Silversea cruises said in an email sent to CBC News that the allegations are unfounded.
“No threats of any kind have been made towards the crew, they are our most valuable assets and we would never threaten them,” the company spokesperson said.
CBC News has agreed not to identify the employees, who fear their employment or means of returning home could be compromised. They worry their contracts could be terminated and the company released of its obligation to repatriate them.
The company said all staff members are being paid for their worked time. It said a repatriation plan is in place for non-essential crew, but due to limited flight availability, the process has taken longer than usual.
“These colleagues are hosted on the ships with full board and free internet while waiting for the flight home,” the spokesperson said.
Thousands of people on board cruise ships around the world have contracted COVID-19 since the pandemic began, and there are still multiple ships with passengers and crew stuck at sea as ports turn ships away.
The Silver Cloud has not had a case of COVID-19. Passengers safely disembarked from the ship in South Africa in mid-March, but the workers say 210 employees, including five Canadians, were denied the opportunity to disembark.
The crew members say they were guaranteed flights home from the Canary Islands on Wednesday as long as they agreed to sign new contracts that would slash their pay in half. If they did not agree to sign, they said, the company threatened them with termination, meaning they would not be sent back to their home countries.
Situation is ‘dire,’ crew say
Those contracts have now expired, they said, and staff were still being assigned administrative or maintenance duties, or self-directed projects, and being told to log their hours without pay.
And on Wednesday, the crew members said plans changed again.
They said they were told flights home from the Canary Islands are too expensive. Instead, on Monday, the ship will pick up 250 crew members from other Silversea ships — one of which has had a confirmed COVID-19 case — and set sail for the U.K., where they may not be able to disembark until May 1.
“The situation on board is becoming dire,” one crew member said, adding that they were told their internet connection — their only means of communication with the outside world — would be shut off if they spoke to the media.
They said they are afraid of experiencing an outbreak, of being trapped on the ship for an indefinite period of time and not being able to reach their families.
They also said that once the 250 other workers embark on the ship, it will be impossible to maintain safe physical distancing, as the ship will be close to its total capacity of 466 people. Rooms will be shared and dining facilities will be crowded.
And they fear the other crew’s contact with a COVID-19 case could jeopardize their chances of being accepted into a port.
“We are being treated like cattle,” the other crew member said.
The company confirmed that one of the ships, the Silver Shadow, whose employees are being brought on board the Silver Cloud, has had a COVID-19 case. But since then, the ship’s employees have been through a quarantine period and the ship has been free of COVID-19 cases for nearly a month, the company spokesperson said.
When asked about physical distancing measures, the cruise line spokesperson reiterated that crew members have been quarantined and said rigid sanitary protocols are in place.
The spokesperson said they are unable to provide specific details about the plan to send staff home, but said they are securing flights from April 27 onward.
Government says cruise line responsible for travel arrangements
One employee said they contacted Global Affairs Canada for assistance.
“Since you have an employee/employer relationship with the cruise line, it is our understanding that they are responsible for your health and safety and should also provide travel arrangements for you to return home,” Global Affairs wrote in an email sent to the cruise ship employee, which was provided to CBC News.
“We also understand that your ship might be anchored in in international waters or near a country without permission to dock. If this is the case, the rationale is probably related to the country’s quarantine measures, which are the sole purview of that host country. We ask you to follow the 14-day quarantine measures established and to follow up with the commandant on board.”
Global Affairs suggested that if the crew members require consular assistance, they contact the closest Canadian consulate abroad.
The department also cautioned that if an outbreak does happen on the ship, crew members could face quarantine procedures and their access to consular assistance could be significantly limited by local governments.
Global Affairs Canada told CBC News it is aware Canadians are on the ship, which is currently en route to Gibraltar, and said officials are providing ongoing assistance and are reaching out to the cruise ship company for further information.
“Global Affairs Canada provides extensive consular assistance to Canadians on cruise ships, including those in international waters,” an emailed statement read.
“Since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, diplomatic engagement with foreign governments and coordination with airlines and cruise companies, has enabled thousands of Canadians to return home as quickly as possible.”
Global Affairs said it recommends Canadians aboard cruise ships contact cruise officials for information about disembarking.
“For the time being, we ask Canadians aboard cruise ships to remain patient and to follow the advice of health officials,” Global Affairs said, adding that those in need of emergency assistance can call 1-613-996-8885 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
For the time being, the crew members say the ship has cut costs as much as it can, with lights dimmed in the corridors and moving along at its most economical speed — eight knots, the equivalent of 15 kilometres per hour on land.
“We are feeling desperate and helpless right now,” one crew member said.