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Ross Klein on the Dark Side of the Cruise Ship Industry

For about ten years, from 1991 to 2001, Ross Klein and his wife were cruise ship junkies. At one point, they were spending 40 days a year on cruise ships. Overall, Klein has been on about 40 cruises.

Klein is a professor of social work at Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada. Klein started noticing the dark side of the cruise industry – the high levels of sexual assaults, the illegal pollution of the oceans, the poor pay to workers.

He went on to write four books about the industry – Paradise Lost at Sea: Rethinking Cruise Vacations (Fernwood Books, 2008), Cruise Ship Squeeze: The New Pirates of the Seven Seas (New Society Publishers, 2005), Cruise Ship Blues: The Underside of the Cruise Industry (New Society Publishers, 2002), and Death by Chocolate: What You Must Know Before Taking a Cruise (Breakwater Books, 2001).

He has written many articles in recent years, has testified before the U.S. Senate and on his website – cruisejunkie.com – Klein keeps track of illnesses and outbreaks, people overboard and deaths, pollution and environmental violations and fines, gastrointestinal illnesses and accident reports.

Who are the major players in the cruise line industry?

“There are only three corporations,” Klein told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last week. “Carnival Corporation is the largest. They operate eight brand names. They control about fifty percent of the world market. Second would be Royal Caribbean Cruises. Their largest cruise line is Royal Caribbean International. Royal Caribbean controls about thirty percent. Third would be Norwegian Cruise Lines – which includes Norwegian, Oceana and Norwegian Seven Seas. They comprise maybe 12 to 13 percent of the world market.” 

What is your nutshell indictment of the cruise line industry?

“The largest problem is that we have regulations that are not being enforced. And part of the enforcement is that there is no monitoring taking place. Alaska has been the only jurisdiction in the world that actually monitored some cruise ship emissions. And they have consistently found violations year after year after year. But the government in Alaska now is trying to dismantle the Ocean Ranger program. Without that, we would have to believe the cruise industry that they are just environmentally conscious and green.”

“I would also point to the report of the court appointed monitor of the Carnival Corporation while they are under probation. They had over 800 violations in their first year. The last quarterly report has proportionally about the same number for a quarter. That is without monitoring.” 

“Carnival was found to be discharging plastic into the oceans. Are other cruise lines doing that? We don’t know because nobody is looking. And that becomes the problem.”

“I’m not indicting them. But we don’t know what they are doing. And historically, we can’t trust that they do what they say they do.”

The cruise ship companies have been indicted and convicted a number of times for polluting the oceans.

“But it’s not taken seriously. Carnival was fined $40 million in 2016. And then they go back and commit another 800 offenses and fined another $20 million. That’s a corporation that earns over $4 billion a year tax free. That’s not even a wrap on the knuckles. That’s tickling the palm of their fingers. Come on. It’s just a joke.”

Other than pollution, what are the other problems on the cruise lines?

“The biggest problem that people don’t think about is crime, sexual assault certainly among the crimes. People are fifty percent more likely to be assaulted on a cruise ship than on land in Canada on some cruise lines. Thirty four percent of the victims are children.” 

“More problematic is that when there is a crime on a cruise ship, the cruise line defines what is a crime. And that definition determines whether or not that is reported. I can give you many examples where the victim will say they were sexually assaulted, but the cruise line says they were inappropriately touched so there was no reason or need for it to be reported to anybody.”

Are most of those sexual committed by workers against passengers?

“It used to be 70 percent workers on passengers. It is now about 50 percent passengers on passengers and 50 percent workers on passengers. Then there are the odd ones with passengers on workers.”

Give us a sketch of the worker profile and the passenger profile.

“Not all cruise lines are the same. The class or people on an ultra luxury cruise line such as Silversea, Seabourne or Regent Seven Seas is quite different. We are talking about passengers earning from $150,000 a year into the millions. And the people earning $150,000 a year would be considered in poverty on those cruise lines. That clientele is quite different from the clientele on premium cruise lines. Premium cruise lines would be like Oceana, Princess, Holland America, Celebrity. That class is probably more of an upper middle class, people aspiring to be upper middle class. It’s a different class flavor. There are more means of generating on board revenue on those ships than there are on the more expensive ships. And they tend to be larger.”

“Then you go to the mass market. You have much larger ships – up to 6,000 passengers. Some of them are like cruising with the K-Mart crowd. Others are like being at Wal-Mart. Whatever you want to call it. I’m not saying that in a pejorative way. It just reflects certain segments of American society.”

How many passengers on the average ship? How many workers, and how are the workers treated?

“On the average mass market cruise ship, there are probably 4,000 to 6,000 passengers. With that there would be between 2,000 and 3,000 crew members.”

“The mandatory workload of a worker on a cruise ship is 308 hours a month. That is a 77 hour work week. That means eleven hours every day of the week. Many workers work much more than that, but that is what they are paid for. For people working below deck in engine rooms and the galleys, they can earn between $500 to $600 U.S. per month. That’s about $1.50 an hour. For those working in passenger contact, that could range anywhere, depending on the class of cruise ship, from $1,000 or $1,200 a month up to $1,800 a month.”

Where do workers come from?

“They come from wherever you can find somebody who is willing to work for as little money as possible. The most demeaning jobs are filled by people from Southeast Asia, the Philippines, parts of the Grenadines. As you increase contact with passengers, the skin color will get a bit lighter, the countries will change and the incomes will also change. But even there, you could be light skinned Mexican and you would be paid less than a light skinned European for the same job.”

Is it fair to say that the average cruise ship carries people from the First World as passengers and people from the Third World as workers?

“That’s accurate historically. The only caveat is that in recent years there has been an increasing development of the cruise industry in places we might consider the developing world. China now accounts for a huge number of cruise passengers today.” 

“Historically, the workers are from the underdeveloped world and the passengers are from the developed world.”

China is in the news with the Wuhan virus. What impact is the Wuhan virus going to have on the cruise industry?

“Potentially staggering. I’m interested in watching what happens. But just watching last week, a cruise ship was blocked entry to St. Lucia. And another was blocked entry into the Philippines. Another was quarantined in Italy earlier in the week. Then there are a number of ships that are going to be relocated from China to someplace else during this crisis. That will have a potentially huge impact on each of the cruise lines involved there.”

Is there any indication now that the Wuhan virus is affecting sales?

“I’m not sure it is affecting sales, but it is certainly affecting the value of their stock on the New York Stock Exchange. The stock prices have been dropping. There is going to be a dip in income if nothing else by the ships that are being idled because of the virus. Will the movement of ships in certain regions become more difficult?”

What percentage of passengers are from China?

“I don’t know exactly. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were up to ten percent.” 

Why did you and your wife stop going on cruise lines?

“It stopped in part because we were wearing out on cruising and also in part because the industry itself told me, through the International Council of Cruise Lines, that because I wasn’t writing good things about them, I really wasn’t welcome on their ships any longer.”

They didn’t ban you, did they?

“They told me verbally. Since then, I have been on five cruises. I was brought on as an environmental consultant to a company that does a music cruise. I provided advice and presentations with regard to some of the environmental practices. On those cruises, I went on as their staff person.”

There was no way they could have banned you from a cruise ship?

“If you are unruly on a cruise ship, they can say — you are not welcome. And they judge whether you are being unruly.”

[For the complete q/a format Interview with Ross Klein, see 34 Corporate Crime Reporter (6)(10), February 10, 2020, print edition only.]

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