MIAMI — Filipino crew members on Royal Caribbean Cruises' Celebrity ships are asking a federal judge to order the company to send them home immediately.

In a lawsuit filed in federal court in Miami Thursday, Ryan Maunes Maglana, a Filipino crew member on the Celebrity Millennium ship docked in San Diego, said he and his colleagues have been held against their will without pay for more than two months as the company has repeatedly delayed repatriation plans for them. On behalf of all Filipino crew members on Celebrity's 14 ships, Maglana is asking the court to intervene with emergency relief.

Since the cruise industry shut down operations on March 13 amid the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of crew members have remained trapped on ships around the world. Some are from countries with travel restrictions in place complicating their return. Some stuck on ships near the U.S. require charter flights home, per guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Cruise companies have said the charter flights are too costly.

At least 578 crew members have contracted COVID-19 at sea since the industry shut down and seven have died from the disease, according to a Herald analysis. Two have died in apparent suicides after jumping overboard.

"Without a doubt, we are witnessing a human rights tragedy of immense proportions unfold before our very eyes," the lawsuit said.

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The lawsuit alleges the Filipinos are being discriminated against because of their national origin. The lawsuit claims the company has acted negligently throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, falsely imprisoned the crew members, and failed to provide adequate medical care, among other claims.

U.S. District Judge Jose Martinez has been assigned to the case.

Royal Caribbean Cruises, Celebrity Cruises' parent company, did not respond to a request for comment about the lawsuit. In an interview with the Miami Herald on Wednesday, Royal Caribbean Cruises Chairman Richard Fain said the biggest challenge to repatriating crew members is navigating each country's changing rules. So far the company has repatriated around 17,000 crew across its 51 ships, while around 26,000 are still waiting to go home.

"The biggest challenge is really the changes that keep coming," Fain said. "We have a plan, and then something comes that changes it."

The company reported a $1.4 billion loss for the first quarter of 2020 and has laid off 26% of its land-based staff.

Maglana, the crew member bringing the lawsuit against the cruise company, said he has been told he will be flying home on six different dates. All six flights were subsequently canceled.

The company's repatriation plan as of May 19 obtained by the Miami Herald shows 9,358 Filipinos are still waiting to go home. With the exception of one ship — Quantum of the Seas — already anchored off Manila carrying 224 Filipino crew members, all other Filipinos will return home on flights scheduled from now until late July, the internal travel plans show.

The Philippines has more than 13,500 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 857 deaths. The Manila airport was temporarily shut down earlier this month in response to an increasing number of cases. The country is requiring returning crew members to be tested for COVID-19 and to quarantine for several weeks.

Filipino crew members from competitors Carnival Corp. and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings who were repatriated in late March and mid-April tell the Miami Herald they are still stuck in hotel rooms and government facilities in Manila without any information about when they will be going home.

Royal Caribbean Cruises crew members are no longer receiving paychecks if they are not working on board; the company is giving crew members $400 per month. Crew members tell the Miami Herald they are spending most of the money — around $13 per day — on bottled water and toiletries.

The lawsuit and the request for emergency relief are a long shot. Cruise company employment contracts prohibit class-action lawsuits and mandate any legal disputes be handled in arbitration under foreign law. Royal Caribbean Cruises is incorporated in Liberia, and most Celebrity cruise ships are flagged in Malta, meaning the companies do not have to adhere to U.S. labor laws.

Still, attorney Raul Delgado believes it is worth a try.

"Sometimes when you're living in uncertain times, you have to use things that are outside the box," he said. "The status quo is not doing anything to help these guys. Hopefully this will be the difference."

— Tribune Content Agency, LLC.



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