They float into Victoria’s night glowing like fifteen-story Christmas trees. With visions of big-spending passengers on shore leave, businesses and politicians eagerly welcome cruise ships. This February, our local daily ran a full-page spread, including the 184-ship schedule, lauding the “great news” of the record-breaking coming year.
But a recent report sounds an alarming foghorn into our collective delirium about the modern ship industry.
The root problem is widely recognized: Today, over half of commercial ships register in nations like Liberia or Panama to enjoy relative freedom from taxes and environment, labour and safety regulations. Even our ex-Prime Minister, shipping magnate Paul Martin, does it.
The industry’s consequent environmental recklessness has long been well knownâ€”particularly that of cruise ships. These moving cities unnecessarily use the cheapest bunker fuel, hundreds of times more toxic than diesel truck fuel, generating exhaust worse than thousands of automobiles running at once. Their garbage incinerator fumes freely circumvent air quality standards . They discharge a million litres daily in wastewaters polluted with sewage, grease, cleansers, pesticides and photochemicals. And since neighbouring states enforce tougher environmental standards, Ross Klein calls BC a top-ranked “toilet” . “They can discharge in Canada’s waters what they are not allowed to discharge elsewhere,” he writes in Cruise Ship Squeeze .
Regardless, the three corporations controlling 90% of cruise ships coming to Victoria routinely ignore environmental laws. In U.S. court cases, they’ve repeatedly confessed (see these citations for Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian) to widespread illegal wastewater dumping, and to frequently constructing illegal bypass pipes allowing highly toxic engine waste to be pumped straight into the ocean instead of through costly filtration systems.
Not so well known, though, is what working conditions are really like on the estimated 15-25% of secretive, offshore-flagged ships considered “sub-standard”. Until recently.
Co-funded by the shipping industry and International Transport Workers Federation, the International Commission On Shipping (ICONS) consulted with seafarers, government, and industry representatives worldwide. Their 2000 status report, “Ships, Slaves and Competition“, and 2005’s follow-up, open an unsettling porthole.
ICONS vividly describes an industry “unregulated, unaudited and unaccountable”, rife with “lawlessness” and exploitation. “For thousands of today’s international seafarers,” states the report, “life at sea is modern slavery and their workplace is a slave ship.”
But surely our classy cruise liners can’t be compared to Indonesian cargo ships!
In fact, the report states, our US-based, offshore-flagged cruise lines were the only major industry players in the world who refused to respond to allegations or even meet with ICONS. “US cruise lines regularly deny members of the clergy, union representatives and workers from seamen’s welfare agencies permission to board their vessels,” the report adds.
ICONS’ found many lower-level cruise ship workers must sign contracts that trick them into accepting wages as low as $50 monthly for 90-hour weeks. A clause allows workers to be fired “instantly” for contacting a union. Pe cking-order positions land some workers lucrative tips, others desperate straits. Of all cruise ships, US-area ones were labelled “the worst”.
And that’s bad.
Many workers on such sub-standard ships are from poor countries, uneducated and untrained, explains ICONS. They’re rarely allowed to disembark. They live in cramped accommodations with inadequate food and medical treatment, and not uncommonly undergo beatings and sexual assaults.
Low wages? The report actually describes non-payment of wages lasting months or years for “a large proportion” of seafarers. Shipping companies sometimes create their own unions, clandestinely sign crews up, and then have these unions sign away their rights.
Many affiliated recruitment companies resemble sex slave traffickers more than employment agencies, demanding huge finder fees, then flying workers to foreign ships where they’re sometimes never heard from again. They also routinely share hiring “blacklists” of thousands of names and photos, where the “offenses” cited are typically that the person demanded back-wages or contacted a union.
Meanwhile, the cruise industry promotes itself to politicians as a sleek “cash cow” for their communities. Media massage these claims, like recent stories gushing about the $38.4 million we’ll pinch from those 330,000 visitors.
But as Klein’s book details, these “over $100 per passenger” spending numbers are industry hype. Spending during port visits is frequently half that. Plus, cruise lines often organize those on-shore bus excursions or museum trips themselves, and take substantial cuts. We must also subtract millions in port costs, tax breaks and frills we provide, while these companies pay virtually no taxes on billion-dollar profits.
A good deal? With quintupling traffic and no local impact studies, who knows?
And while we’re glorifying profits, conditions worsen. For example, ICONS says companies use post-9/11 security laws to more easily prevent workers from leaving and inspectors and social welfare reps from boarding.
What can be done? ICONS mainly recommends port countries simply enforce existing international standards agreements and their own laws. Doing so would also return Canada’s own ships to competitivenessâ€”a hope repeatedly voiced in Canadian submissions.
ICONS a ccuses the industry, customers and regulatory administrations of not being committed to easing the hardship of seafarers: “There can be no alibi of ignorance.”
Unsurprisingly, the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority’s Annual Report exudes, “The booming cruise business is good news for the GVHA as it makes up much of our revenuesâ€¦” But do we extend such profit-driven justifications to the point of encouraging SLAVERY?
Anyway, even $38.4 million is just 3% of Victoria’s yearly tourism dollars. If we demand ships meet basic standards, yes, some may avoid docking here. Yet isn’t that a price worth paying?
–Originally published in Focus magazine, March 2006.
Other media stories on slave ships: