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The Dark Side of the Cruise Ship Industry

by RUSSELL MOKHIBER

Let’s say you are a crusading liberal magazine.

Exposing corporate power.

Champion of the workers.

Defender of liberalism.

But, on the other hand, for the past 13 years, let’s say that you have been raising an average of $200,000 a year by charging readers for a chance to float on a monster cruise ship through beautiful seaways with hundreds of your fellow liberals and listen to prominent writers and activists denounce corporate power.

And let’s say the cruise ship industry you are partnering with has a nasty history of environmental crimes and treating its mostly third world workforce like modern day slaves.

And let’s say that in the 13 years you have been taking your readers on cruise ships, you have been approached many times by investigative reporters and activists pleading with you to run one article – just one – in your crusading magazine about the dark side of the cruise ship industry.

And you agree that you will.

But you never do.

Let’s just say that was the case.

What would be the explanation for that?

Well, one explanation would be – if you expose the industry for polluting the seaways and treating its workers like modern day slaves, then your readers might be less willing to dish out the $1500 to $5000 per person to go on the cruise.

And you wouldn’t be making as much money for your magazine.

Another explanation would be that you just haven’t had the time to get around to it.

Thirteen years is just a blink in time.

And you just can’t do it all.

Even if reporters and activists are willing to do it for you.

Books have been written exposing the cruise ship industry for what it is.

Ross Klein has written some of those – most recently – Cruise Ship Blues: The Underside of the Cruise Ship Industry.

Klein says that a number of years ago he proposed to write a series of articles for The Nation magazine detailing the industry’s nasty record when it came to sexual assault aboard ships, how the industry mistreats its workers, and how it pollutes the environment.

Most troubling to Klein is how the workers are treated.

On a ship carrying 2300 passengers, there are about 1000 workers.

And about 250 of them are the workers who are doing the grunt work – those working in the engine rooms, swabbing the decks, peeling potatoes.

“It’s a 77 hour work week, with no days off,” Klein says. “They are making $400 to $500 a month – or a little more than $1 an hour.”

“The people who have face time with the customers – the folks who clean rooms, the waiters, the people who front for the cruise lines – they get paid $4 an hour,” Klein says.

“I proposed a couple of articles for The Nation a couple of years ago,” Klein said. “The editors told me they weren’t interested at that time.”
Gershon Cohen lives in Haines, Alaska.

Cohen is a crusader.

In 2006, he sponsored an initiative regulating cruise ship pollution.

His side spent $8,000 to promote the initiative and the cruise ship industry spent more than $2 million to defeat it.

And the law still passed – 53 to 47 – by referendum in 2006.

It is the only state law in the nation regulating cruise ships.

The industry has a poor track record when it comes to environmental crimes – a number of major cruise ship companies have pled guilty to felony pollution crimes.

And one of the powerful things the Alaskan law does is require a police officer – an Ocean Ranger – be aboard each ship to keep an eye on the ship’s operations.
Cohen – a subsistence salmon fisherman from Haines – is a hardliner when it comes to the cruise ship industry.

“On principle, I would never take a cruise,” Cohen told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last week. “Aside from the water pollution, the labor they have on the ships is pretty close to slave labor in my opinion. They pay $1.60 an hour on some of the ships for the stewards and the waiters. They work very long days. Six or seven days a week – for six maybe ten months a year in a straight shift. Long days making very little money.”

“I would never support an industry that is close to having a slave labor situation. I just wouldn’t support that kind of an industry.”

The minimum wage law doesn’t apply?

“No,” Cohen says. “They are third world workers and the ships are registered in foreign ports. They are not protected by any U.S. wage laws.”

Cohen has a Nation story of his own.

He says that one of The Nation cruises was coming to Alaska in the summer of 2007, and he arranged to get a handful of people from The Nation, including the magazine’s publisher emeritus – Victor Navasky – to get off the ship in Juneau and meet with and be debriefed by Cohen about the industry’s troubled past.

“We had quite an afternoon,” Cohen said. “I told them everything I knew and thought about the industry and backed it all up with evidence. They agreed to do an article about the industry.”

“They said they would have a reporter contact me,” Cohen said.

“And over the course of the next year, I did have two or three conversations with a reporter based in San Francisco.”

That reporter, it turned out, was The Nation’s environment reporter – Mark Hertsgaard.

“I did speak with this reporter several times. And each time I talked with him, he told me the date for the article had been pushed back. And pushed back. And yes we are still going to get to it, but we can’t do the interview yet – and I’m not going to write the story quite yet. And as far as I know, no story was ever published.”

No story was ever published.

We asked Cohen to speculate as to why.

“The speculation would be that they make a lot of money in partnering with this industry,” Cohen said. “And maybe they didn’t want to have an expose in The Nation. But that’s purely speculation. I have no evidence to support that.”

“All I know is that they told me they were going to do an article. They were outraged by what I told them. They certainly did not refute anything that I told them. And I have ample facts to back up my claims. And everything that I’m saying has been published in other areas. It’s not like I’m the only one saying this. And as far as I know, no story was ever done. They certainly never concluded interviewing me. And they were going to let me know.”

The Nation has yet to publish a story about the industry.

Hertsgaard says it’s just a question of timing.

“Of course I remember Gershon Cohen and his concerns about the cruise ship industry, many of which I share,” Hertsgaard wrote.

Hertsgaard says that he was the one who raised the subject of the environmental impacts of cruise ships with the editors of The Nation.

“I did so in an email I wrote to the editors in advance of that summer 2007 cruise, because I was going to be a featured guest on that cruise and thought The Nation should consider these larger issues,” Hertsgaard wrote. “I did not meet Mr. Cohen during that cruise, though it is my understanding that he did speak with representatives of the magazine. I interviewed him by phone upon my return to San Francisco some time later, along with other sources on the story. I would not say that the cruise ship story was ‘assigned’ to me, though I definitely discussed it with my editors and there was agreement that I should explore the topic and, depending on my findings, write a piece.”

Hertsgaard says it is true that “I never wrote the story and, to my knowledge, The Nation has not run another story on the subject.”

“I reject entirely any insinuation that I was pressured not to write the story or that The Nation decided not to pursue the subject,” Hertsgaard wrote. “The truth of the matter is more mundane, though it should be familiar enough to anyone who knows how magazines and other news outlets actually function. The reason I didn’t write the cruise story was that other emerging stories ended up taking precedence, and this was all the more true because I was pulling back from my Nation work at that time in order to focus more on writing my next book – which just came out in January 2011 under the title, Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth. At this distance I can’t recall the specific stories that crowded out the cruise ship story, but I just went back and checked my own website. My log of stories during that period shows that I only wrote two stories the entire rest of 2007 for The Nation, mainly because I was focusing on my book but also because other topics simply seemed more urgent.”

“That is not to say that the cruise ship industry is not deserving of coverage – I may well return to that topic myself, prodded in part by your email,” Hertsgaard wrote.

“But as any working journalist knows, there are countless worthy stories that get left behind by the onrushing flurry of breaking news – witness how in recent months first Egypt, then Wisconsin, then Libya and now Japan have demanded coverage – which inevitably means that other topics end up losing out. But for anyone to suggest there is something more underhanded in the case of The Nation and cruise ships is, frankly, ridiculous.”

It might be ridiculous for this week, or last week, or last year, or the last ten years.

But is it ridiculous for the last 13 years – the period of time The Nation has been making an average of $200,000 a year on the cruises?

Katrina vanden Heuvel, the editor of The Nation, says she believes that the cruise ship industry “is worthy of coverage – from an environmental, corporate, and other perspectives – and I am very open to publishing such a piece in the next months.”

“I should also add that on the cruises themselves we have run sessions where we have discussed labor, environmental and other issues – sometimes with the crew – and we have also offered passengers the option of participating in a carbon offset program,” vanden Heuvel wrote.

“The fact is that the cruise is frankly and openly a fund-raiser, and it has helped us defray our operating deficit and allowed us to invest in quality journalism,” she wrote. “In the 13 years since we have been doing the cruise we have netted anywhere from $100,000 to $300,000 each year. The typical amount is in the $200,000 range.”

Both Cohen and Klein said they would be willing to help expose the underside of the cruise ship industry in the pages of The Nation.

Cohen still refuses to go on a cruise.

But Klein says he would be willing to go on a Nation cruise and hold a seminar on the dark side of the industry.

“They have been hosting talks on board about exploitation of workers in the third world, but not realizing that the people serving them are the exact same workers,” Klein said. “The Nation cruises are aboard Holland America Lines – the workers are Indonesian, and officers are Dutch – it’s the traditional master/servant relationship.”

Remember – the Dutch Colony of Indonesia?

The Dutch East Indies?

“Teaching about the cruise industry on The Nation Cruise could be quite constructive,” Klein said. “I most definitely would teach that course.”

RUSSELL MOKHIBER edits the Corporate Crime Reporter.

[For a complete transcript of the Interview with Gershon Cohen, see 25 Corporate Crime Reporter 12(12), March 21, 2011, print edition only.]

 

Russell Mokhiber is the editor of the Corporate Crime Reporter..

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