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Workers' Rights

Wage plundering, threats, corruption: the Cuban dream of working on cruise ships turned into a nightmare

Three former Cuban crew members reveal to DIARIO DE CUBA situations as dire as those suffered by health personnel exported by the regime on its so-called 'missions'.

Illustration. Diario de Cuba

In Cuba, having a job that involves traveling abroad has for decades been tantamount to winning the lottery. Sailors and cruise ship employees are considered fortunate. These workers are not required to pass mandatory political courses, unlike the health professionals that the Cuban regime exports, and they also are not barred from interacting with crew members and passengers from other countries. But this is where the differences end between the conditions under which cruise ship personnel and medical staff on supposed "medical missions" work.

Like their white-coated compatriots, the regime charges these employees dearly for the privilege of traveling and earning salaries in dollars that allow them to meet their needs and those of their families better than those who work in Cuba.

Three Cubans who worked for different cruise companies - whose identities we protect here through the use of fictitious names - tell their stories to DIARIO DE CUBA. Common denominators include being stripped of their salaries, receiving threats, and dealing with the Cuban employment agency SELECMAR.

This state-owned company, founded in 1995, selects and hires Cuban personnel at the request of foreign companies to offer services aboard cruise ships, ferries and other vessels. No Cuban crew member, whether a sailor or food service employee, can contract with these foreign companies on their own.

Laura worked first for MSC Cruises and later for the Turkish company Miray. She says that she used her passport to travel and then they retained it on the vessel.

80% of her salary was withheld, but in July 2020  the Government approved a package of rules published in Ordinary Official Gazette 48 that gave cruise ship staff hopes for improvement.

According to these rules, the Government decided to "consider maritime workers salaried employees abroad, such that they would receive 100% of the total salary" paid by the foreign employer on contracts previously determined by SELECMAR.
It was also approved to apply a Personal Income Tax on a sliding scale, between 15% and 30%, of what is accrued by these workers.

According to the official Cubadebate website, SELECMAR continued to have a monopoly on contracts and all sailors were obliged to contract their services. Laura had to repay almost all the money to the Cuban State.

"In the end, we had to pay almost everything in Cuba, because they considered us what is called 'freelancers' here (in Spain). We had to pay the State as if we were from the private sector. We even had to pay for all the paperwork at the agency (SELECMAR)."

To leave Cuba, Laura had to sign a document in which she promised to return. If she does not, she will not be able to enter the country for at least five years.

"You had to sign that paper; otherwise, you couldn't leave. They did that because all (the employees) ended up staying (they took advantage of a stopover to abandon the cruise),"explains Laura, who ended up making the same decision as many colleagues, despite the consequences. Now she will wait the five years to elapse to be able to travel to Cuba and see her family again.

Alexander also worked for MSC Cruises and said he received between 480 and 520 euros in cash, which was between 20%-25% of his real salary.

"We, the bar and restaurant employees, received the same total amount as foreigners, a basic salary of about 1,900 euros. Foreigners received all the money in an account of their choice, and were shocked at what happened to us. Some suggested that we protest the theft of our earnings."

According to Alexander, Cuban workers were never able to access that other 75% or 80% of their wages.

"Some of the ship's personnel told us that it was deposited in a bank account in Panama, without telling us anything about it, so that the Cuban Government could use or extract it, as this is it what had been established in the framework agreement between the cruise line and SELECMAR, the company that had hired us."

Alexander describes the contracts that the Cuban workers signed as "a façade" for Panama to grant them visas as officials of the Ministry of Transport linked to the marine transport system.

The cruise company then drew up another contract related to the work they were really going to do. For this contract, they received a sailor's passport. Upon boarding the ship the officers withheld their passports and told them that they were following orders from the Cuban authorities, and that this was a requirement to hire them.

The contract did not specify the number of hours employees had to work. It reflected a salary of 1,900 euros, but contained nothing about the payment system or the money that was taken from them.

"That was agreed to in a document that no Cuban had access to," Alexander says.

The fact that the contract did not specify working hours meant that Cubans worked ten to 11 hours a day. They also had no weekly time off. If someone invoked their right to an eight-hour working day, or time off, SELECMAR would not hire them again.
In the same situation were workers from countries such as India, whom MSC Cruises hired because it could pay them less than staff from Europe, for example.

Alexander says the Italian company knew that Cuban workers were being robbed of most of their wages by the government.
"What both the Government of Cuba and this cruise company care about is making money."

In 2022, the NGO Prisoners Defenders accused MSC, before the International Criminal Court, of violating the rights of Cuban workers.

The Italian company replied that it no longer employed Cuban workers, although it admitted to paying a portion of their wages to the Cuban authorities, as this was a "regulatory requirement."

Regarding SELECMAR, Alexander says employees who know someone at the company enjoy the advantage of being called more often for travel. Its executives take advantage of their positions to make more money. According to this former crew member, they charge $10,000 for a position on a cruise ship.

On the page, SELECMAR claims to work "in accordance with the international regulations of the International Maritime Organization (IMO, STCW '95, ISM Code), the International Labor Organization (ILO) and ISO 9002 Standards."

The company also claims to "respect the union agreements of our customers in terms of salary, working conditions and traffic carried out by the vessel, the type of vessel and others. The basic levels determining our salary table are those established by the ILO."

It says nothing about the way it distributes the wages paid by foreign shipping companies to the Cuban workers they hire, with the company as an intermediary.

DIARIO DE CUBA wrote to the director of SELECMAR, Rafael Peraza Santiago, requesting statements on the accusations of these former crew members, and received no response.

Alexander explains that, although the cruise ship workers are not subject to direct surveillance, they suspected that a coworker was a State Security agent, because he enjoyed certain privileges. They never knew for sure who was watching them, however.
Employees who had been working with foreign companies for longer through the contracts established by SELECMAR told him that they were under covert supervision, and that it was necessary to behave.

"Behaving" meant not getting involved in political issues, and complying with the regulations established by the Government for Cuban workers abroad.

Like Laura, Alexander was threatened with not being able to enter his country for five years. When Donald Trump announced measures to prevent cruise ships docking at Miami ports, such as MSC's, from docking at Cuban ones, Alexander intuited that from that moment on it would be more difficult for cruise ships to hire Cuban personnel. Thus, on his next trip, before Trump's measures took effect, he fled.

In Cuba his parents received an anonymous call telling them that he would be branded a "deserter."

Although he has been unable to return to his country, Alexander does not regret the decision he made.

"Now I live in freedom and I understand the slavery to which we were subjected. That's why I want to support the condemnation."

The advantage of not being just Cuban

Jorge Luis is a Cuban mariner who, until 10 years ago, like Laura and Alexander, received only 20% of the salary paid for his work by the companies that hired him through SELECMAR.

To hire sailors, international shipping companies require them to have certain training for emergency and first aid situations, as well as to use certain equipment. They must pass periodic exams to obtain certifications demonstrating that they are up to date and currently qualified. In Cuba, these exams are held at the Naval Academy. To complete them and obtain certification, sailors must belong to SELECMAR.

"But those certifications were also bought. There's been more than one scandal at SELECMAR, because people bought the certification," explains José Luis.

SELECMAR did not call all the sailors with the same frequency. Those who had acquaintances at the agency were favored. But it wasn't free. There was an unwritten agreement according to which the official at the company in charge of hiring selected his acquaintance, who, in return, gave him his first full paycheck (the 20% not taken by the Cuban Government).

Those who knew no one at SELECMAR were hardly hired. When they were, it was at companies that paid little and whose trips were short. To compensate for the money taken from them by the Government, Cuban sailors need long journeys.

Jorge Luis says that Cuban sailors are those who sail the longest because this is the way to make money.

Like all Cuban workers, sailors must pay the contribution for the defense of the country known as the MTT. But they have to pay it in foreign currency. They pay the union fee in national currency.

That was Jorge Luis's life until approximately 10 years ago, when he acquired Spanish citizenship. He immediately asked to abandon SELECMAR.

"As a Spanish citizen, I sent my resume, my documents, and waited for them to call me. When they hired me they paid me what European sailors are paid. They paid me directly. I opened an account at a Spanish bank and collected my money through it. The Cuban Government could not touch a penny of my money or intervene in the hiring. They didn't even know I was still sailing."

By disassociating himself from SELECMAR and, therefore, from the Cuban State, Jorge Luis waived two rights: first, that of taking exams at the Cuban Naval Academy to keep his certifications up-to-date. He had to start doing this in Europe to be able to continue sailing. Second was the "symbolic" retirement that he would have had at the end of his working life, but with which he would not have been able to survive on the island.

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Primero que nada, excelente artículo de Yusimi. Las condiciones que ella comunica son desafortunadas pero reales. La naturaleza humana crea comportamientos de explotación y manipulación de los demás. Las cosas no cambiarán de la noche a la mañana en Cuba ni en la mayoría de los países, por lo que es fundamental que el público esté lo más informado posible porque muchos, especialmente aquellos en el liderazgo, preferirían barrer este tema bajo la alfombra. Manténgase informado y activo.