Strike highlights concerns on gambling ship - Wednesday 9th of December 2009

A strike that broke out Wednesday among the crew of 150 foreigners who live and work aboard the Palm Beach Princess gambling cruise to nowhere has raised concerns about safety and working conditions aboard the ship, a maritime attorney said Thursday.

Even as Princess managers solved the immediate labor dispute and resumed sailing Thursday night after a day-and-a-half hiatus, members of the mostly Filipino crew complained they are stretched thin, with some on the shrinking crew juggling additional duties and working rotations much longer than the usual 10 months, said Ross Toyne, an attorney for the International Transportation Workers Federation.

"The crews been on the ship for so long now that people are starting to make mistakes," said Toyne. "As a general proposition, the economic component of their treatment is fine. What were more concerned about is, long term, when you run a crew hard, you end up with people getting injured."

At least one worker has lived and worked on the ship 15 months straight without a significant vacation, said Toyne, who was aboard the ship Thursday. Others reported paychecks arriving late and trouble collecting overtime, according to Toyne.

Princess officials deny interruptions in pay and say no worker who wants to leave has been forced to stay aboard the ship.

"I know we have some people asking for an extended contract, and when we have people ask for an extended contract, sometimes we say OK, " Princess owner Mauro Sebben said Thursday.

But the eruption Wednesday on the deck of the Princess, when about 40 crew members stormed out to protest heavy-handed management, has shed light on the unusual and, some say, exploitative working conditions in the cruise-to-nowhere industry.

"They are virtual sweatshops at sea," Toyne said.

A cocktail waitress aboard the Princess typically earns $50 dollars a month, plus tips. Casino workers get $13 a day plus tips, and deck and engine workers earn $400 a month. All get room and board on the ship.

A typical 10-month contract in the cruise industry requires a crew member to work 6.5 days a week, 12 hours a day, Toyne said.

"All the major cruise lines have slashed their operating costs, basically recognizing that the passengers will pay the employment costs of their labor forces," Toyne said.

But foreign workers clamor for the jobs because they offer the chance to earn tips in valuable U.S. dollars.

Visa requirements for the Princess foreign workers require that they leave the country every 28 days. To comply, the ship sales to the Bahamas every month so that the crew can get their passports, spend the night and return to the Port of Palm Beach to resume the twice-daily cruise schedule.

Some crew members are related to each other. Many have worked on the Princess for decades and have come to know repeat passengers much better than the ever-changing corporate owners, said Princess operations manager Paul Azzurro, a 26-year veteran on the ship.

"We went through three ownerships, three bankruptcies, and this is the same crew," Azzurro said. "Its like Cheers, where everybody knows your name."

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