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Opinion Cruise ships have never been more dangerous for workers

Passengers disembark from the Norwegian Pearl after it docked in Miami on Jan. 5. The cruise ship returned after being at sea for just one day after multiple crew members tested positive for the coronavirus. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Lissette Marquez worked at a cruise ship on a C-1/D visa. She lives in Mexico City and is a member of the Migrant Defense Committee, an initiative of the Centro de los Derechos del Migrante.

As the pandemic stretches into a third year, it is tempting to want to escape it all and take a vacation. But I’m here to tell you that a cruise should not be your first, second or third option.

Until very recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was advising against cruise travel, even for the vaccinated. It has now revised the warning, but conditions have not really improved.

As omicron spreads, so have the harrowing stories of outbreaks on cruise ships. The Post has reported that passengers on affected ships have had to deal with hours without water, bare-bones food and testing confusion.

For crew members, the indignities have been worse, even in an industry notorious for its poor treatment of workers. The stories have brought me back to the hellish summer when I worked as a buffet steward on a passenger cruise a few years ago.

I had just graduated from college in Mexico City. As I was looking for my first job, staff at my university encouraged me to apply for what seemed to be the perfect summer opportunity — waiting tables aboard a ship while improving my English and traveling. I connected with a recruiter who introduced me to a California cruise company (I’m not naming it because I fear they will retaliate against me, affecting my employment opportunities). Soon I had a C-1/D temporary work visa and was embarking on my first cruise.

Within the first week of boarding the ship, I knew that the job would be a nightmare. When I applied for the job, the cruise company promised me a wage for a four- to six-hour shift each day. Aboard, the company confiscated my passport and visa. Our managers forced my co-workers and I to work horrendous hours, letting us sleep for only three or four hours each night. Six, on a good night. Instead of the promised wage, the company paid me what amounted to four dollars an hour. And when anyone complained, management bullied them into silence.

The stress of the job was relentless, and soon I felt a deep sense of anxiety. My mental and physical health deteriorated rapidly. For the first time ever, my hair started falling out. And I stopped having regular periods (all of these symptoms went away after I resigned).

Passengers and workers were continuously sick, often with gastrointestinal viruses. And my co-workers and I slept below deck in spaces with recirculated air and no windows. As we worked around the clock to sanitize the dining rooms and living quarters, I understood how dangerous it would be for someone to get very sick. Cruise ships such as the one I worked on do not have hospital equipment such as ventilators. They rarely have enough physicians and nurses to attend to large numbers of sick people. While it’s easy to romanticize these vacations as an “escape,” the staff experience the opposite, stuck in the middle of the ocean with nowhere to go if they get sick or face labor abuse.

As I read story after story of cruise ships with covid-19 outbreaks, I think of the workers aboard those ships — whose conditions, like mine, were unacceptably dangerous even in pre-covid times.