The remains of Caio Saldanha’s past life have been fossilized on his Instagram feed. In December, the Brazilian DJ has a video of a deliriously packed cruise ship floating on the undulating Atlantic ocean. But since then that euphoria has been put aside. Instead, Saldanha, who has worked a number of different cruise dates throughout his career, posts a few Instagram stories each week describing how he was stuck at sea for two months.
The Trump administration issued a no-sail mandate for all boats on March 13, the day before Saldanha launched on Celebrity Cruises’ 1000-foot Celebrity Infinity ship for a 24-week stay. That left him, and more than 100,000 other crew members across ships, in virtual limbo. The crew of the Infinity bobs alone in the suburbs of Tampa Bay, waiting for their bosses to send them back to their home country. For the time being Saldanha and his fiancé on board with him are powerless.
The details of the mess the cruise industry is in are laughably mysterious, but it essentially boils down to a dispute with the CDC. As the Miami Herald reports, cruise lines did not expect a closing date until one month after the decision of March 13, which meant that they kept most of their crew in their posts to resume operations after the expiration date. But in April, the U.S. government extended that non-sailing assignment to the end of July.
The CDC allows crew members to disembark from these ships as long as cruise lines eat the bill for the private transportation of their employees back to their home country. Executives have challenged those offers, call the chartering overhead “too expensive” and many of those CEOs have put in place plans to avoid costs by working on the edge of legality. Example: the last person who heard Saldanha, his ship goes to Barbados on May 27. From there he flies to Brazil to avoid American guidelines. (After this interview, Saldanha confirmed that he will be home from June 3.)
Meanwhile, the human toll on these cruise ships is increasing day by day. There are multiple suicides have been reported among imprisoned crew members, including a 39-year-old Ukrainian woman who went overboard on a carnival boat. Some have been sentenced to windowless residences on board or live under strict closings of the corona virus. Fifteen members of a Royal Caribbean crew went on hunger strike in early May, but this has been reported to have been the case Dissolved.”
Saldanha himself is in touch with many of his colleagues who are stuck on other boats, and that is all he can do to pressure his superiors to get them back on dry land. For the time being, Saldanha is waiting his time by watching movies, playing video games and talking to the press. We talked about industry injustice, how Chomsky informs his activism, and how even the beauty of an Atlantic sunset can feel like a prison after a while.
When you first signed up to DJ on cruises, did you know that the corona virus was there? Or have you not paid much attention to it?
Before we started, we thought of the pandemic. We didn’t get any information from the company before, but when we came to the US, we saw Donald Trump talking on TV about the cruise ships and how they were a dangerous environment, and the no-sail order. We got back to the company and said, “Shall we go on board?” And they said everything is fine. We started on March 14 and we were notified that we would be sailing to Tampa Bay and that we had no information about what would happen in the future. That was the first day. It was very complicated.
They disembarked and all passengers remained on the ship until further notice. The situation was difficult to understand.
How was that message? Did they just say you’d be stuck on the boat for a short while? Or did you know it would be months from the beginning?
They told us it would take at least 14 days. We had no measures to avoid Covid-19 on the ship. Before quarantine, there were no measures to prevent the threat of the virus.
You don’t have cases of coronavirus, do you?
As far as I know, we have no cases here. But we are aware that we may be exposed to the virus. That is not good at all. Especially as a couple, when I get sick, or when my fiancé gets sick, we get divorced. It makes us very stressed and very scared. You would be sick and alone.
People just see the headlines that 100,000 people are still trapped at sea, do you feel completely forgotten?
Yes, that’s the feeling. This industry is aimed at passengers. Nobody thinks about the crew members. This industry aims to maintain a good image for the public and the service, and they forget the workers.
Does it feel like you’re in the middle of a bureaucratic mess?
After a story of the Miami Heraldwhere Royal Caribbean said this was a financial issue and it was too expensive to do as the CDC wanted to do for repatriation, I don’t think it’s a bureaucracy problem. It is a crime. This company is committing a crime. They send us to Barbados. We arrive there tomorrow and they will fly us home May 27th. I can interpret that as a way to avoid the measures that the CDC has put in place. It is a large cartel. They try to avoid doing the right thing and caring about us.
You post stories on Instagram where you documented almost every day that you were trapped at sea. What was it like to keep your social media up to date and your friends and family informed about your situation?
Yes, I stopped posting photos on Instagram about my job. I only give information to people who follow me to try to expose what’s going on. I’ve stopped all social media as a DJ – the things we do to get an audience or work when we are on land.
I expose my situation. I’m trying to help. Many people are currently in silence. So I use my social media to make it a journal or a channel for everyone to see. I want to be a source of this.
As you said, thousands of people are now trapped on cruise ships. Have you communicated with anyone else on other boats?
Yes, it is interesting. I am in contact with an Argentinian girl who works on Royal Caribbean. She was repatriated two days ago. We have someone on the ship who is the music director, and he and his girlfriend have been through so much worse than we have. They sat in a crew cabin without windows for five days. We share everything. Reach people on other ships [out to] me. We develop a network of people who think the same way.
Are you locked?
We now have good treatment. We have a guest cabin, we have a balcony and we can go until midnight. That’s no problem, we won’t get out of the cabin that late.
What makes you forget you’ve been on a cruise ship for two months? What has been an escape?
We watch a lot of movies. We watch videos on YouTube. We are trying to learn more about financing, because we need to be back on land prepared for a new reality in terms of work. We will have to change our jobs. We can no longer work here. We play games, we have things to read, we spend our time and we go outside and look at the ocean. We are not always stressed.
Are there ever times when you look at the ocean, like you say, “You know, this is really bad, but at least there is a nice view.”
You know, when you’re stuck at sea for so long, you don’t see it that well. The sea is a prison, it is oppressive. It is so beautiful, but the meaning of the sea disappears. If you are exposed to the same view in this way, you become insensitive.
Are you still earning an income now? Is the cruise line still paying you?
They told us they would no longer pay us in full on April 25. That was the last payment. Then they started giving us $ 13 a day until it reached $ 400. But we didn’t get any money with that for a few weeks. We have not reached $ 400. I really don’t know what’s going on right now. [Saldanha has since received the full $400.]
Are you thinking about going to court?
I had an offer for a class action lawsuit. I contacted the lawyers. I still read and study it. I don’t want to sign anything before I’m sure. But the psychological damage is already there. We feel that our psychological integrity has not been preserved.
Have you always been an activist? Have you always talked about employee injustice? Or did this experience cause you to?
This has always been a concern for me, but I have never talked about it. I read many books that are important for our knowledge as an employee. I read Marx, Adam Smith, Foucault, all economic thinking related to philosophy. So I read a lot. And now that I am in a situation where I see that this kind of injustice is gripping the whole industry, I started to make my voice heard. It makes me think about my Noam Chomsky lecture, about profit over people and neo-liberal thinking. My lectures have made me an activist, I think.
When you are back in Brazil and hopefully this pandemic is finally over, what will you do first?
I’m getting married to my fiancé. And we also take our dog for a walk. That’s what we want to do so badly. We miss the animals.