The 25-year-old, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect her job, gives half of her $1,400-a-month salary to support her aging parents back in Manila, where she grew up dreaming of becoming a doctor.
But she followed in her brother’s footsteps, drawn to the promise of adventure, and landed a coveted position with MSC Cruises, headquartered in Geneva. This is her third tour. As the 18-deck behemoth — replete with a casino, spa and bowling alley — cruises the Bahamas, she wonders how much longer she’ll be serving pina coladas and martinis to guests, whose numbers she says have shrunk from more than 4,000 to about 3,000 in recent weeks.
After President Trump’s announcement of new travel restrictions from most of Europe to the United States for 30 days, a March 20 trans-Atlantic crossing from the Caribbean to the Mediterranean that had been in limbo is now canceled, she said the crew was told Wednesday night.
“We don’t have any idea what will happen,” she said. “I feel scared because we might stay at home for like five to six months without a job and pay. We don’t have any assurance of when this virus will stop.”
Alyssa Goldfarb, a spokeswoman with MSC Cruises, said the company — along with the global tourism sector — is facing “unprecedented challenges due to the covid-19 coronavirus situation” as countries impose travel bans and restrict ships’ access to ports.
“Some of our ships will not operate for a while and others continue to do so for the time being, with less guests onboard, due to the various travel restrictions,” she said. “Unfortunately, this also means there is a reduced need for manpower on our ships.”
Crew members will be paid until they disembark, Goldfarb said.
“We are temporarily required to reduce the number of crew members on our ships," she said. “We are scheduling flights for all crew members — free of charge — to return to their homes while we wait for the situation to return to normal, and they will have guaranteed re-employment when things pick up again.”
On Thursday, Carnival’s Princess Cruises, which has faced quarantines on two coronavirus-stricken ships, announced it would cancel all sailings on its 18 vessels for two months. Viking Cruises has also canceled voyages until May.
“With what happened to Diamond Princess in Japan and Grand Princess in Oakland, all cruise vessels will be affected,” said Nelson Ramirez, president of United Filipino Seafarers. “They won’t leave because there aren’t any passengers. There will likely be only a skeleton crew just to maintain the ship [while anchored] — so many Filipino seafarers will be laid off on those cruise ships.”
Filipinos make up about a quarter of the world’s maritime workers, a large fraction of which are on cruise ships, according to United Filipino Seafarers. The union estimated more than 325,000 Filipinos worked aboard a ship in 2018.
Ramirez said workers aboard ships whose contracts end early should receive some amount of paid leave. But those who are ashore will not.
“If you are not on board, there’s no salary. But those who are there whose contracts are cut short, they have to be paid,” he said. “Every seafarer is a contract worker. After our contract — six months, eight months, or one year — after that, we wait until we’re hired again. If cruise ships are anchored, they won’t get work.”
“It will really have a big impact. So many will suffer,” Ramirez said. “If this continues, I’d guess 70 percent of [Filipino workers] will be out of a job. Just on the Diamond Princess, there were 500 Filipino crew members. If you had 10 ships, that’s already 5,000 people.”
Meanwhile, in a ship traversing the Panama Canal, a 24-year-old line cook aboard Cunard’s Queen Victoria is already feeling apprehensive, just four months into his first tour.
“For the past few days, that’s what my colleagues and I have been mostly talking about because word has been going around that a lot of people have already canceled their bookings for future cruises,” said the cook, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect his job. “Some of my colleagues are worried they might start sending people home if the bookings start to get low and not give contracts to the workers on vacation due to overmanning.”
He works 10-hour days, no days off, he said — if he’s lucky, for the duration of his nine-month contract. He gives a portion of his $968 monthly salary — much higher than he could make back home in the Philippines — to his mother, who retired from the cruise line last year after 20 years as a bedroom stewardess.
He lives his life below deck, out of sight of passengers. Along one wall, pinned to a bulletin board next to the medical office, is a six-page health advisory about the coronavirus. He said the cruise line takes health, hygiene and safety very seriously because they live and work in a contained space, with strict rules about keeping the ship sanitized.
“Despite all those things, bigger cruise ships than ours ended up having positive cases of the virus and ended up being quarantined and leaving a lot of cruise ship workers unsure of their future,” he said.
Cunard has not responded to a request for comment.
The anxiety among Filipino cruise workers extends ashore, rippling throughout the country’s seafaring economy to those awaiting the start of their next contracts, recruiters as well as maritime training centers.
Roque Fasonilao, who has worked three years for a Singapore-based cruise line that he declined to name, was just promoted from waiter to bartender on his last tour, which ended in December.
Fasonilao, 30, was supposed to head back in February on a new contract but extended his time off because he was scared of contracting the virus. He recently got an assignment scheduled to start March 23.
“But I’m still afraid,” he said. “There are so many canceled cruises, especially here in Asia. Some of my friends are also telling me they have some canceled cruises in Europe, Italy.”
His ship used to book around 4,000 guests, he said. Now it’s down to around 1,000, resulting in adjustments in crew size.
“I have so many colleagues who are pretty much in tears because their vacation is hitting four to five months, and they still have no return schedule,” he said.
To make ends meet while he’s out of a steady paycheck, Fasonilao has borrowed money from his sister.
Ferline Miranda, a 38-year-old waitress for Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth, is also grounded in the Philippines, awaiting the fate of her next tour, which is supposed to start in April. Her ship has been rerouted from Asian countries like Singapore, Japan and South Korea and is now cruising only around Australia.
“Because of all that’s happened, all schedules are tentative,” said Miranda, a single mother who relies on her cruise salary of nearly $2,000 a month to care for her two boys. “If I don’t board, what about their tuition fee?”
She has a car payment and a mortgage, on top of other bills and daily family expenses, including a nanny for her sons.
If she does not work, she won’t be paid. “Those who work on cruise ships, when we’re at home, we’re automatically cut,” she said. ““You can’t do anything but borrow or dip into your savings — or car payments and mortgages will be late.”
Miranda, who has worked at sea for nine years, said she’s already considering her options if she is not allowed to return to work. “If I don’t board, I’ll probably have to sell my jewelry,” she said.
Miranda laments the lack of financial support systems, saying neither the company nor the hiring agency are obligated to provide assistance to cruise workers between contracts: “There’s no protection. Seamen don’t have benefits.”
Maritime training centers in the Philippines, which typically enroll students in classes like crowd management, safety and security, and first aid before they head to sea, are also expecting business to drop.
“As we see now, the coronavirus has affected the markets financially and if consumers want to go out and spend. Obviously that will affect ship owners, which will affect their hiring, which will affect us — we’re not going to expect much training,” said a representative at one of the country’s 100 maritime training centers who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect his business.
Bob Dickinson, former CEO of Carnival Cruise Line and the industry’s longtime unofficial spokesman, said crew members aboard cruises that are cut short should still be paid. Cruise lines have an interest in retaining experienced, dedicated employees, he said.
“The standard is to keep them compensated whether the voyage is operating or not,” said Dickinson, speaking from a cruise aboard the SeaDream in St. Kitts this week.
“The last thing cruise lines want is any worker freaking out. They want stability. That’s critically important to their morale,” said Dickinson, who has been in the industry for more than 35 years. “If you have an unhappy crew member, that can kill the whole voyage. If the crew isn’t happy, then the guests aren’t happy. If the guests aren’t happy, then the cruise line has a big problem.”