A lawsuit or a report to a regulator are two last-resort options available to many workers who feel like their employers have mistreated them. But doing either can be difficult or ineffective for a cruise-ship worker because cruise lines often require workers to handle disputes through arbitration and incorporate their businesses in countries that have more lenient labor laws than the US, Jim Walker, a maritime lawyer for Walker and O'Neill, told Business Insider.
This means cruise lines are able to treat their workers in ways that might make land-based businesses in the US fearful of legal action or regulatory scrutiny.
"The cruise industry does not have to comply with US labor laws," he said.
Cruise lines use arbitration agreements to prevent lawsuits
When cruise-ship workers sign their employment contracts, they agree that they are subject to the law of the country their ship is registered in, and if they have a conflict with the cruise line, they will settle it through arbitration rather than in court, said Michael Winkleman, a maritime lawyer for Lipcon, Margulies, Alsina & Winkleman. (To his knowledge, Disney Cruise Line is the only one that does not require arbitration.)
Settling a grievance through arbitration, rather than the US legal system, is likely to produce a worse outcome for the employee because the cruise line picks and pays for the arbitrator, Walker said. That means cruise lines can choose arbitrators who have given them favorable rulings in the past and who are likely to use the laws of a country with fewer worker protections than the US, like Panama or the Bahamas, to guide their decisions, he added.
"No arbitrator's going to bite the hand that feeds them," Walker said.
It's difficult for workers to complain because they might not get rehired
The Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) — a trade association whose members include Carnival Cruise Line, Royal Caribbean International, and Norwegian Cruise Line — did not comment specifically on the use of arbitration agreements by member cruise lines. A CLIA representative said its members comply with the Maritime Labour Convention, a set of guidelines for the treatment of seafarers created by an agency of the United Nations that covers working hours, health and safety, and living conditions.
The Convention says employees should not work more than 14 hours in one day or 72 hours in one week, but 26 current and former cruise-ship employees told Business Insider they worked an average of over 72 hours per week. The CLIA representative characterized their descriptions of their schedules as "unverified."
It's difficult for many cruise-ship employees to raise concerns about working conditions. If they get hurt or complain too much, the cruise line could simply decline to hire them again after their contracts expire, said William Terry, an associate professor at Clemson who has studied the recruitment of cruise-ship employees.
The CLIA representative said that the association regularly interacts with groups that provide assistance to seafarers, like labor-focused nongovernmental organizations and networks of port chaplains, and "has never been advised of concerns regarding the industry's compliance with the Convention."