Monday 22 January 2018

Cruising: is it all washed up?

Costa Concordia. Getty Images
Costa Concordia. Getty Images

Gemma O'Doherty

In the rocky seas off Tuscany, the wreckage of the Costa Concordia still lies on its side, an ominous reminder to passing liners that the 21st century's so-called 'unsinkable' ships are far from invincible.

The salvage of the shipwreck will be the biggest operation of its kind ever undertaken, requiring the construction of a huge undersea platform anchored to the sea floor. It will be April of next year before it is finally towed away to the scrapyard and the sea bed is cleared and replanted.

Since the ship capsized in January, after the captain made an unauthorised manoeuvre too close to shore, resulting in the deaths of 32 people, the cruise business has been trying to play the incident down as an unfortunate one-off.

But new insights into the industry, revealed by a US investigation, show a litany of dangers lurking at sea, including allegations of slave-like working conditions for staff, viral outbreaks and filthy conditions onboard.

Cruising critics -- among them a growing number of former crew -- are starting to speak out about what they claim is the reality of life onboard some cruise ships, with one American maritime attorney, Charles Lipcon, describing them as the "modern-day version of the sweatshop".

In the ungovernable waters of the sea, companies have been accused of skirting domestic labour laws by exploiting workers, many from Third World countries such as the Philippines, and forcing them to work months on end with few days off and minimal pay.

One cruise firm recently announced it would pay its crew members a basic salary of 75p (96c) an hour. But instead of forwarding tips to staff, it threatened to withhold them from those workers whose customer-service ratings fell below 92pc.

Staff on another liner shed light on other worrying work practices, claiming two people were expected to clean 34 rooms in 75 minutes on their ship.

Worn-out crews are much more likely to fall ill and perform poorly in an emergency, leaving the rest of the ship in danger if things do go wrong.

Diseases such as E. coli and norovirus are increasingly common at sea, but staff on some ships said their contracts would be terminated if they spoke about outbreaks to passengers.

In one incident, a ship is said to have switched to 'silver service' instead of the buffet so that unsuspecting passengers wouldn't share utensils and spread germs.

There are growing concerns, too, about crime onboard cruise ships, with new figures in the US suggesting a person is twice as likely to be sexually assaulted on a cruise ship than on land.

Last week, a crew member on a European ship was arrested in connection with the rape of a 27-year-old British tourist in her cabin. The International Cruise Victims Organisation, which helps victims of crime at sea, is inundated with reports of sexual assaults, thefts and missing people.

In recent months, the Cruise Lines International Association and the European Cruise Council, which represent cruise lines, say they have tightened up safety procedures on ships and that they are more secure than ever before. Only time will tell if their promises hold water.

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