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Treacherous Waters

The latest bad publicity for the global cruise industry is just the tip of the iceberg.

It's not a great time, PR-wise, for the global cruise industry. It would be bad enough with all the attention surrounding the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic and James Cameron's 3-D release of his blockbuster movie. But contemporary cruise disasters have been in the news with disturbing regularity as well.

In the latest incident, on March 30, a fire broke out on the luxury cruise ship Azamara Quest, forcing it to make an emergency stop at a Malaysian port. Thankfully, there were no deaths and the ship avoided the fate of the Costa Concordia, which ran aground off Giglio Island near Tuscany in January, killing at least 25 people, with seven more missing and presumed dead. Just a few weeks later, on Feb. 27, another of the Costa line's ships -- the Allegra -- lost power in the Indian Ocean after an engine-room fire, leaving more than 1,000 people without power or water for nearly a week as the ship was towed to the Seychelles.

The media coverage of the Costa disaster has focused on Capt. Francesco Schettino, who stands accused of both piloting the vessel too close to the island as a publicity stunt and abandoning ship while thousands were still aboard. But these incidents are much bigger than the actions of one captain or even one company. They are evidence of an industry out of control.

Rather than being the exception to the rule, the Costa disasters are the products of a cruise-industry culture in which passenger safety, environmental impact, the exploitation of workers, and crime -- including rampant sexual assault -- are too often merely swept under the rug. If legislative steps aren't taken to bring the industry under control, these recent unfortunate events may just be the tip of the iceberg.

The cruise industry likes to bill itself as the safest mode of commercial transportation. The claim is made on the Cruise Lines International Association's website and is frequently repeated when reports of shipboard accidents or crimes have been raised in the media or in congressional hearings. But whether a cruise ship is safe is a matter of perspective. The facts are that 16 cruise ships have sunk since 1980, 99 have run aground since 1973, 79 have experienced onboard fires since 1990, and 73 have had collisions since 1990. Since 2000, there have been 100 incidents in which ships have gone adrift, lost power, experienced severe lists -- when a ship nearly tips -- or had other events that posed a safety risk to passengers.

Admittedly, passenger deaths are infrequent. As we saw, however, following the 1994 sinking of the cruise ship Estonia in the Baltic Sea, just one accident has the potential for massive casualties -- more than 850 perished when that ship sunk within 30 minutes of taking on water during a storm.

Given the number of incidents, it's surprising that major cruise lines can still be so lax when it comes to safety precautions. That the Costa Concordia was at sea without a functioning black box -- imagine an airplane being allowed to fly passengers without a black box -- is a testament to the less-than-conscientious attitude of the industry to passenger safety and security. (There were subsequent news reports suggesting the black box was recovered, but these appear to refer to bridge voice recordings, which are quite different.)

Unfortunately, ship accidents are not the only safety concerns facing cruise passengers. Between Oct. 1, 2007, and Sept. 30, 2008, the FBI received 421 reports of onboard crime from cruise ships, including 115 simple assaults, 16 assaults with serious bodily injury, 101 thefts, and 154 sex-related incidents. Cruise ships made these crime reports following March 2007 congressional hearings in which the cruise industry made a commitment to report to the FBI all crimes against U.S. citizens (though the data also include some reports regarding foreign nationals). The rate of sexual assault on Carnival Cruise Lines in 2007 and 2008 was a surprisingly high 115 per 100,000 passengers.

In addition to safety concerns, the cruise industry also poses major risks to the environment. These were brought to the forefront in the late 1990s after Royal Caribbean International was fined more than $30 million for illegally discharging oil and hazardous chemicals into U.S. and Alaskan state waters and for making false statements to the U.S. Coast Guard. The U.S. Government Accountability Office reported in 2000 that between 1993 and 1998, the U.S. government confirmed 87 illegal discharges from cruise ships (81 involving oil and six involving garbage or plastic). Seventeen "other alleged incidents" were referred to the countries where the cruise ships were registered.

Royal Caribbean is hardly the only culprit. Holland America Line was fined $2 million in 1998 for pumping oily bilge water into the Inside Passage off the Alaskan coast, in addition to other violations. In April 2002, Carnival Corp. entered a plea agreement and paid an $18 million fine, pleading guilty to numerous pollution incidents from 1996 through 2001. These included discharging oily waste into the sea from ships' bilges and falsifying records of oily bilge water on six ships to conceal company practices. A few months later, in July 2002, Norwegian Cruise Line pleaded guilty to having discharged oily bilge water for several years and to having falsified discharge logs; it was fined $1.5 million.

There are more recent environmental offenses as well. In 2008, 12 of 20 ships permitted to discharge in Alaskan waters (the only jurisdiction where cruise ship discharges are monitored and measured) violated discharge limits, logging 45 violations involving seven pollutants, among them ammonia, chlorine, copper, fecal coliform, and zinc. The year 2009 was even worse, with 13 of 18 ships that were permitted to discharge in Alaskan waters violating Alaska's discharge limits during the season, racking up 66 viola­tions involving nine pollutants.

Many environmental offenses regularly perpetrated by cruise ships -- include the discharge of sewage, the dumping overboard of solid waste, the use of incinerators (which are less regulated than incinerators on land), and the discharge of oily bilge -- go unpunished due to the patchwork of U.S. regulations, which often allows cruise lines to pollute with impunity: Regulations in Alaska, Washington, and California are relatively stringent; there is very little regulation in Oregon, the Gulf states, and much of the Eastern Seaboard.

Europe isn't much better. The European Union has regulations applying to air emissions from fuel while ships are in port. The International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, known as MARPOL, sets standards for shipboard discharges, but enforcement of these standards is inconsistent and is often the responsibility of the country where a ship is registered, which is not necessarily the same as where the ship operates. Carnival Cruise Lines' ships, for example, are registered in Panama.

The cruise industry's atrocious environmental record is matched, perhaps, only by its disregard for workers' rights. Workers on foreign-flagged vessels, even those owned by U.S.-based corporations, generally work without union protection and are frequently subjected to arbitrary wage cuts. As Paul Chapman, founder of the New York-based Center for Seafarers' Rights, told the Los Angeles Times: "A ship owner can go any place in the world, pick up anybody he wants, on almost any terms. If the owner wants to maximize profit at the expense of people, it's a piece of cake."

Although the U.S. minimum wage was extended to ships registered in the United States in 1961, Congress left intact the exemption for foreign ships. A 1963 Supreme Court decision extended this exception by ruling that U.S. labor laws, including the right to organize, do not apply to foreign vessels engaged in American commerce, even if the owners of these ships are from the United States. This is the context in which the modern cruise ship industry developed and took hold. Today, as reflected in records disclosed in discovery in several court cases, the typical worker on a cruise ship has a mandatory 77-hour work week, can work for 10 to 12 months without a day off, and can earn as little as $450 per month.

Keeping these practices in place requires that cruise lines violate long-standing U.S. law. The Merchant Marine Act of 1920, better known as the Jones Act, provides U.S. maritime workers with the right to sue for pain and suffering damages from job-related injuries. But in the mid- to late-2000s, following settlement of Borcea vs. Carnival, the cruise industry began including arbitration clauses in cruise-ship workers' contracts -- they are now commonplace. These clauses have dire consequences for crew members. They mean that a foreign cruise-ship worker on a U.S.-based ship has limited right to sue his or her employer in U.S. courts because the ship and the company operating the ship are both foreign-registered.

Desire to get around the Jones Act, therefore, gives cruise lines a disincentive to hire American workers. The arbitration clauses, as well as the opinions enforcing them, are thus job killers for Americans because U.S. workers are protected under U.S. labor law, protections not held by non-U.S. workers.

Each of these issues requires urgent attention from both the industry and regulators. Because most accidents are avoidable -- related either to human error or to allowing ships out of port with unresolved mechanical issues -- there is a need for much greater oversight of the industry and stricter enforcement of safety standards. The all-too-cozy relationship between the regulators (the U.S. Coast Guard) and the industry needs to be questioned and better understood, and clearer regulations need to be in place for the Coast Guard to follow. Lawmakers must also recognize that the classification societies entrusted with ship safety standards, such as Lloyd's Register of Shipping in Britain, are not independent in any real sense given that they are paid by the cruise lines to certify those lines' ships. (Ideally they would be paid by and responsible to a disinterested third party.) There needs to be movement from industry self-regulation to an independent system with passenger safety and security as its primary focus. Ships should not be allowed to sail when engines or propulsion systems are known to be faulty or when mechanical or technical issues pose safety concerns.

The easiest solution for environmental issues is reintroduction and passage of the U.S. Clean Cruise Ship Act, which would regulate discharges and put environmental observers or regulators on cruise ships. Given the cruise industry's oft-stated commitment to environmental protection, it would be logical that the industry would embrace the legislation. (The act was last introduced in Congress in 2008, but, like two previous sessions, it failed in committee.)

There also needs to be legislation to address passenger and crew-member rights. The loophole that treats cruise-ship passengers differently from airline passengers under the Death on the High Seas Act needs to be addressed; the fact that a cruise line is not liable for medical malpractice by the medical staff it hires to provide care to its passengers needs to be corrected, as does the fact that foreign cruise-ship workers have no rights under U.S. law with regard to either remuneration or recourse in the case of injury or unfair treatment.

The cruise industry enjoys an enviable position. The corporations are registered offshore, thus avoiding U.S. taxes and regulations, but they benefit from many services paid for by the U.S. taxpayer. For instance, as disclosed in Freedom of Information Act requests, one disappearance from a cruise ship can cost the U.S. Coast Guard more than $800,000; the Carnival Splendor's engine-room fire that left it adrift off the Mexican coast in November 2010 reportedly cost the U.S. government $1.8 million. By registering ships under flags of convenience, the corporations also dodge U.S. labor laws, even though their passengers are mainly Americans. In effect, North Americans taking a cruise enjoy an economic vacation on the backs of the foreign workers employed on these sweatships.

International regulations do apply to the cruise industry, including MARPOL, which is under the authority of the International Maritime Organization, as well as labor codes agreed to under the International Labor Organization. Monitoring and enforcement of many of these conventions, however, is the responsibility of the country where a ship is registered, which means cruise ships face only limited consequences for noncompliance. International cooperation is required to ensure that companies can no longer skirt national regulations by simply registering a ship under a flag of convenience.

The media tends to lose interest in cruise safety a few days after the latest accident. But to prevent the next Costa Concordia from taking place, not to mention the routine abuses to cruise workers and the ocean ecosystem, cruise passengers must demand accountability and sweeping industrywide change. Anything less will be merely rearranging the deck chairs.

FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images

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