October 26, 2020

Beware of cruise lines operating without international conventions

MSC Seaview cruise ship eating the sea with its human cargo


The recent recruitment of 40 Kenyan seafarers to work aboard the MSC Ship Management Ltd Company’s cruise vessels brings the number of Kenyans recruited to 56 people within six months.

This ideally is a commendable development at a time local seafarers suffer massive unemployment. However, there is a caution here.

The characteristic glitter of cruise ships to the outside world hardly shines much hope on their crews; much so for the flag of convenience (FOC) vessels.

The recruitment was, however, marred by malpractice, nepotism, incompetent short listing panelists and illegal closed shop system. 

The MSC cruise ships with Kenyans on board include MSC MUSICA, MSC BELLSSIMA, MSC SPLENDIDA and MSC LIRICA, all managed and owned by different ship owners and ship managers.

The registered owner of the Panama flagged MSC MUSICA is a Geneva based MUSICA BAIL GIE while her ship manager is a UK based MSC Mediterranean Shipping Company. Multinational crew members aboard MSC MUSICA are 400.

Registered owner of the Maltese flagged MSC BELLISSIMA is a Naples based VISTA 2 COMPANIA NAVIERA SA while her ship manager is the Naples based MSC CROCIERE SPA. It (BELLISSIMA) has a total of 650 multinational crew members on board.

The registered owner of the Panama flagged MSC SPLENDIDA is the Basel based SPLENDIDA BAIL   SNC while her ship manager is the Basel based MSC CROCIERE SPA. Multinational crew members aboard the MSC SPLENDIDA are 600.

And the registered owner of the Panama flagged MSC LIRICA is the Geneva based NEWCO LIRICA SA while her ship manager is the Geneva based MSC Mediterranean Shipping Company. MSC LIRICA has a crew of 430 people.


Given that the four cruise vessels are flying FOC flags and they are being managed and owned by different owners and managers there is a need to be wary and more vigilant on what is going on Kenyan crew working aboard these cruise vessels.

In addition to that the multinational crew members are working without contract papers, for the one year CRU agreement is expected to expire on 31st December this year.

A cruise attendant preparing table for breakfast aboard a ship while on the background two bar attendants are waiting for clients

The agreement was signed on 1st January this year between the Maltese based MSC Malta Seafarers Company Limited and Italian based Federazione Italiana Transporti –CISL.

And to make it worst the ships with Kenyan crew are not covered by the Mombasa based MSC Ship Management cruise ship agreement.

Most vessels like the MSC cruise ships fly the flags of the FOC nations of Liberia, Panama or the Bahamas, with their owners taking full advantage of tax concessions and the lack of employment rights.

Working on a cruise ship may seem like a dream job, but according to ex-employees there are plenty of downsides to the role.

Workers complained of the awful food they were given and the surprising regularity with which they find dead guests.


In June 2017 a crew member of the Panama flagged MSC MUSICA went missing under mysterious circumstances after failing to show up for work on board the flagged MSC MUSICA in the morning of June 19, 2017.

The 36-year-old Brazilian female crew member was supposed to begin her shift at 3:00 a.m. The ship’s crew searched until 10:00 a.m., and the crew member was reported missing.

The MSC MUSICA docked in Brindisi, later that day, and local authorities were notified. Local harbor vessels and a helicopter were involved in a search.

The crew member was not believed to have gone missing on land when the ship was in its home port of Venice on June 18.

The missing crew member may have gone overboard sometime between sailing from Venice to Brindisi, a city in the region of Apulia in southern Italy at the coast of the Adriatic Sea.

In April  last year a 34 year old Yusmaidys Ortiz Perez, employed as a bartender aboard Panama lagged  MSC OPERA, was reported missing by MSC to the Royal Cayman Islands Police Service four days after the ship left Grand Caymen after she did not return to the cruise ship.

The woman was eventually located safe on the island, although the cruise line never explained why it delayed four days before reporting that she did not return to the ship before it left the country.


Reports of exploitation and sexually harassment are common aboard cruise ships. Below decks on virtually all cruise ships is a hidden world of long hours, low pay, insecurity and exploitation.

Working days are commonly 10-13 hours long, seven days a week. Those who work continuously below deck, like in the galleys, rarely see the light of day, let alone the shimmering sea of the Caribbean.

Wages for those on a salary can be as low as US$400 (Ksh40,000) a month rising to US$700 (Ksh70,000) for skilled cooks and fitters.

However, many domestic staffers are “tip earners” paid about US$50 (Ksh5,000) a month and expected to survive on the generosity of the passengers.

Some passengers abide by advice to tip up to US$3 (Kshy300) a day for waiters and room stewards. But others spend their money on duty free shops, casinos and in the bar, while incomes are calculated on a ship with every berth filled.

Many seafarers, particularly those from the Philippines, are forced to pay a crewing agent a fee of up to US$1,500 (Ksh150,000) to join the ship.

For the lowest paid, this will mean half of a typical eight month contract will be spent just to cover this expense.

MSC Splendida cruising in the sea with its human cargo

Another trick from the employers is to demand a “Security Bond” of up to US$750 (Ksh75,000) from each employee, supposedly to stop desertion and a consequent fine for the company from the US Immigration Service.

The bond can extend the working time to cover expenses to six out of the eight months on board.

Discipline is harsh and often randomly applied. Passenger complaints can mean staff transferred to less desirable stations (not fully occupied for example) or dismissal.

Passengers required to pay minimum gratuities for service have been known to complain to avoid payment.

Such factors as well as the cramped accommodation, the limited leisure facilities and the lack of pension and other social security arrangements make it less attractive to many of the potential seafarers, especially to those in developed countries.

The result is an ever-accelerating staff turn-over rate which has seen the average length of hotel crew employed drop from three years in 1970 to 18 months in 1990 to nine months in 2018.


A recent study shows that cruising industry contributes USD 60 billion to the global economy, supports more than 775,000 jobs, and pays USD 20 billion in wages.

The cruise ship market continues to boom, creating record profits and providing one of the shipping industry’s most buoyant sectors.

Key players in the industry are Carnival Corporation, Royal Caribbean, P&O Princess Cruises and Malaysia’s Star Cruises, which own over half the total number of cruise vessels.

There is no proper agreements, safety and health measures, medical care at sea and social security for Kenyan mariners working aboard the local and foreign fishing or merchant vessels.

Owing to the culture of fear, inhuman conditions on fishing or merchant ships such as physical and mental abuse and even murder or mysterious disappearance of crew are under reported because Seafarers on Fishing or Merchant vessels are afraid to speak out.

They maintain a culture of fear because they know that if they complain, they will lose not only their present but possibly their future jobs.

Throughout the past five decades, Kenya has done a lot on port management reforms. But, she has overlooked the development of Maritime Labor.

Owing to lack of National Maritime fleet and proper Maritime labor policy, Kenya contributes just a fraction to the total of 1.2 million World Seafarers.

Shortage of qualified examiners at the Kenya Maritime Authority and tutors at the local nautical institutions for the development of Seafarers and fishers is worrying and disturbing.

Non-implementation of the ILO/IMO conventions is also an obstacle to the development of Kenyan Seafarers.

Seafarers are the lifeblood of the global maritime and fishing industries. Without them, the industry fails.

It is therefore essential that all seafarers, whatever their nationality, gender, religion, orientation and whatever vessel they work on are protected from human rights and labor rights abuses.

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