Why's Everybody Always Pickin' on Me?

Poor, poor Micky Arison. You gotta feel for him. How misunderstood he is. How wrong the public has been to judge him so harshly, to question the propriety of taxpayers spending more than $130 million to build this gazillionaire a new basketball arena.

At least that's the impression South Floridians might have been left with after reading last week's cover story about Arison in the Herald's "Business Monday" section. The fawning profile depicted a humble family man (and former hippie!) who rose through the ranks at his daddy's cruise ship business and who later selflessly took charge of the lowly, unprofitable, more-trouble-than-it's-worth enterprise known as the Miami Heat. Why? Because dear old Dad asked him to. Today the guy can't even enjoy a simple outing to a ball game because so many people recognize him. What a lousy break.

And what a far, far cry from the "greedy corporate pig" described here in a three-part series examining the arena deal.

Buried deep in the Herald story, however, was a hint of criticism that suggested Arison's millions might carry a slight odor. "The industry has its critics," the story ventured, "among them U.S. maritime unions, who have accused businesses such as Carnival of building success on the backs of foreign laborers."

Before you could wonder just who these pesky union officials might be, Arison was quick with a persuasive denial. Cruise ships, he argued, offer workers from foreign countries an opportunity to build well-paid careers with growing companies.

Whew. For a second there it appeared that this likable former peacenik might be pulling down hundreds of millions of dollars in profits each year by exploiting the desperation of foreign laborers. Thank goodness that's not the case.

"Well, actually it is," counters John Sansone, director of the International Transport Workers Federation in Washington, D.C., which represents more than five million seamen in more than 150 countries. According to Sansone, some cruise ship crew members earn as little as $50 per month in wages. "It makes you sick," he says. "We've tried several times to get onboard Carnival's ships to try to organize the workers but have been prevented by their security force. These poor workers feel trapped and believe they have no rights -- and Carnival feels they have no rights. If one of them complains or God forbid should try to organize, then they are immediately fired."

Larry Kahn, a staff attorney for the New York-based Center for Seafarers' Rights, an advocacy group, says that while onboard living conditions have improved for most cruise ship employees, the notion that they are well paid is ludicrous. "Those who are not officers are paid very, very low salaries," he says, "sometimes less than $100 a month." Those workers, he explains, are expected to rely on tips from passengers or from fellow employees who have direct contact with passengers.

Carnival spokeswoman Jennifer de la Cruz claims that Sansone and Kahn have got their numbers wrong. The average busboy, she says, earns $1200 per month, and waiters can earn as much as $800 per week. Plus employees receive free room and board and insurance benefits, all of it tax-free. She will not say, however, what portion of those earnings is salary from the cruise line and what portion comes from tips. According to de la Cruz, Carnival's lowest-paid crew member (not eligible for tips) earns $400 per month.

The pay may not be so great for everyone, but de la Cruz says it is "just ridiculous" to argue that Carnival employees feel powerless or believe they have no rights. Many of them have been with the company for fifteen and twenty years, she notes, voluntarily renewing their annual contracts over and over again.

Both Kahn and Sansone point to another disturbing sign that Arison may not be the generous boss portrayed in the Herald. He has been leading cruise industry efforts to rewrite laws concerning the rights of crew members and passengers to bring lawsuits against cruise lines in U.S. courts. Instead they would be forced to seek redress in the country where the ship is registered. (Like most cruise lines, Carnival's ships fly under foreign flags such as Panama and Liberia, which allows the company to avoid complying with U.S. labor laws and also exempts it from certain federal taxes.)

"It's greed at its finest," says Sansone. "Here they are, making billions of dollars every year, and they are not satisfied with it. They want to make even more money on the backs of these seamen by denying them the right to sue these companies in the United States when they think they have been mistreated."

Charles Lipcon, a Miami attorney who often represents cruise line employees, says the changes currently pending in Congress reveal the true nature of cruise ship owners such as Arison. "It is just a very mean-spirited bill," says Lipcon, "and anyone who is in favor of it, I would say, is mean and amoral."

Poor, Micky. Amoral, mean-spirited, and greedy. When will people stop picking on you?