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Royal Caribbean crew go on hunger strike until company proves it is sending them home

Royal Caribbean's Navigator of the Seas on May 4, 2019.

RICHARD TRIBOU/ORLANDO SENTINEL/TNS

By TAYLOR DOLVEN | Miami Herald | Published: May 9, 2020

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MIAMI (Tribune News Service) — Fifteen crew members on Royal Caribbean's Navigator of the Seas cruise ship say they are on a hunger strike until the company agrees to send them home.

After nearly two months stranded at sea since the industry halted operations amid the COVID-19 pandemic on March 13, the crew members, who have not eaten since Thursday afternoon, told The Miami Herald they are desperate. The group of 15 from Romania does not want their names used for fear of retaliation from the company, which they say has threatened to punish workers if they talk to journalists.

"My mental health is degrading," one said. "We do not have any more hope."

A spokesperson for the company, Jonathon Fishman, said the company had fixed the situation. "The situation was resolved this morning after an amicable discussion between our captain and our crew members," he said via email on Friday.

The Herald investigated COVID-19 outbreaks on cruise ships. Explore the findings of the most comprehensive tracking system of coronavirus cases linked to the cruise industry.

But fasting crew members told the Herald they have no plans to stop their hunger strike until the company provides proof that they are going home.

After telling crew members for weeks that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had banned crew repatriation flights, Royal Caribbean International CEO Michael Bayley reversed course on Sunday, saying the company would sign the required agreements with the agency to repatriate crew as soon as possible. The CDC requires the company's executives to sign a legal agreement holding them accountable for following the agency's rules, including providing disembarking crew members with masks and using only private transportation to send them home.

Royal Caribbean has allowed 16 people, all U.S. citizens, to go home using the CDC process. The Navigator of the Seas, where the fasting crew members are now, is scheduled to dock in PortMiami on May 10 and stay until May 11. The workers are asking to be flown home from Miami then.

Carnival Corporation has repatriated 582 people and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings has repatriated 2,463 people to the U.S., Canada, Argentina, Peru, Philippines, Indonesia, Dominican Republic, St. Lucia, Greece and Honduras using the CDC process.

Royal Caribbean transferred the Romanians, who originally worked on the Anthem of the Seas ship, to the Navigator ship at the company's private island in the Bahamas on Wednesday ahead of a planned charter flight from Miami to Romania on May 16. But on Thursday, Bayley announced in a letter to employees obtained by the Herald that the Romanians would be transferred to a different ship, the Enchantment of the Seas, and flown from Barbados to Romania on May 21.

The crew members said the company did not provide an explanation for the delay, the most recent of several since they were first told they would be going home on March 30.

Fishman said Royal Caribbean Cruises has repatriated 14,000 of its 70,000 ship employees (around 100 per ship are needed for operations with no passengers).

The decision to go on a hunger strike did not come easily, the crew members said. "We started this hunger strike because someone needs to do something," one said. "The point is our mental health. The mental health is dropping down."

Last week, a Royal Caribbean crew member went overboard from the Jewel of the Seas ship near Greece; his body was never found.

In a letter to employees this week, Bayley said the company has counseling services available. "Crew life has unique stresses and pressures," he wrote. "Just recently, we suffered the tragic loss of a colleague aboard Jewel, and our hearts go out to his family, friends and colleagues."

One of the fasting crew members said his father in Romania is ill, and his concern for his father are wearing on him as he remains stuck in the Caribbean.

"Only thinking about something happening to him, I can barely get out of bed in the morning," he said. "This ship will be for two days in Miami. Why can't they send us in an airplane?"

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