Stranded Mauritius crew threaten hunger strike to get home

Crew packed their bags on deck of an MSC Cruises passenger ship anchoring at Santos port in Brazil. Credit: Photos provided by crew

Mauritian crew stranded on three MSC Cruises passenger vessels, anchored off Brazil since March 2020, have threatened a hunger strike in protest at a seven-month-long delay to their repatriation.

The 103 crew on board MSC SeaviewMSC Poesia, and MSC Musica at anchor off the Port of Santos are among an estimated 1,000 Mauritians still stranded on passenger vessels worldwide.

The crew refused breakfast and lunch on 8 September, threatening a full hunger strike if the company did not book their transit flights to Dubai by 16 September, as first promised.

They posted banners on Facebook reading “We are fed up” and “Bring us back home. We feel suffocated”.

Crew packed their bags and slept on deck, testifying how stressed and homesick they felt. “MSC,” they posted on the social media platform, “we miss our kids. We miss our family. Mentally disturb[ed]. What [do] you need, suicide? It’s time to send us back home.”

Krista Thomas, a former cruise line employee based in Canada, has been assisting her former colleagues and stranded crew. She set up private Facebook groups and put crew in contact with unions, government authorities, and management since the pandemic first shutdown the cruise industry in March.

“I’ve been getting messages from the crew for months,” Thomas told SAS. “Now they are at the point they are angry and desperate. The messages I’m getting are ‘I don’t care if they fire me, I don’t care if I ever work for this company again’.”

MSC Cruises, a Swiss-based company which posted a EUR2.7 billion (USD3 billion) turnover in 2018, according to their website, did heed the crew protest within 24 hours. Swab testing and medical checks were under way on 9 September, crew reported.

“MSC cruises has at all times looked after the well-being of its crew members,” Natalia Brasse, the company’s Mauritius-based agent Oceangoers manager, told SAS. “Repatriation dates are allocated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.”

Brasse said the 16 September slot was confirmed and communicated to crew members and their families on 5 September.

“MSC Cruises and Oceangoers are in the process of finalising the relevant flight connections to repatriate the remaining 171 Mauritian crew from Dubai, Brazil, and Europe,” she added.

“We fully understand that these are very difficult circumstances for our Mauritian compatriots awaiting to return home to their families,” said Brasse. “We are currently maintaining the communication with the crew until all flights and connections are confirmed.”

Mauritians have been among the last crew to leave cruise vessels, due to government policy set by the Mauritius government.

Mauritius allows in only 150 crew at any one time, and up to 450 a month. Cruise lines must agree to use Mauritius Airways and pay all repatriation and quarantine costs. No ships have been allowed to disembark crew in Mauritius.

The seafarers have been stuck on board the vessels without pay and separated from families since the COVID-19 pandemic aborted cruise line operations in March, stranding an estimated 100,000 cruise crew.

One Mauritian crew on board MSC Seaview said to SAS that they became desperate after the company on Monday refused to confirm their flights, reportedly due to transit costs to Dubai.

“I’ve had my contract frozen since March and no salary,” the crew said. “It is boring and depressing being in the middle of the ocean. I miss my family. It’s been a year since I saw them. The food is bad. I am feeling weak and my stomach is burning.”

The Mauritian maritime ministry, the Mauritian government’s Director of Shipping, MSC Cruises’ London-based HR manager, and MSC Cruises’ media representative in Brazil were also contacted for comment.