Norway’s deeply troubled shipping and cruise line Hurtigruten reportedly expects to receive more than NOK 300 million in state aid, to compensate it for cancelled cruises during the Corona pandemic. The line’s management, meanwhile, has gone along with state demands that it no longer use one of its ships as a floating hotel on which crew members were said to be earning “slave” wages.
The suddenly controversial Hurtigruten, long considered part of the national heritage, has been suffering lately both economically and in terms of its reputation. Its failure to recognize Corona virus infection on board some of its ships, and even allegedly try to cover it up, has soured relations with both the public, the media and state authorities in Norway.
Then, in an effort to generate revenues during the Corona shutdowns, it chartered some of its ships to the US-based producers of the next Mission: Impossible movie, for use as floating hotels during on-location filming in Norway. Among them was the internationally registered ship MS Fridtjof Nansen, which had Covid-19 infection on board last March that it initially failed to acknowledge.
The Fridtjof Nansen, normally used for cruising outside Norway, is crewed mostly by men and women from the Philippines. Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) obtained a copy of one of their work contracts, and reported that the Filipino seafarers only earn NOK 10,000 (USD 1,111 at current exchange rates) a month for eight-months in a row on board, plus room and board. That amounts to as little as NOK 35 an hour when they’ve worked several shifts throughout their days as waiters, cleaners, in the laundry or in the galleys.
“This is what I call a slave contract,” Thomas Benson, an attorney specialing in labour law who also lectures at Nord University, told NRK on a nightly national newscast during the weekend. He accused Hurtigruten of the “cynical exploitation of employees from low-cost countries.” Norwegian labour organizations had already protested, both because the Nansen’s Filipino crews receive only a fraction of the pay that Norwegian crews receive, and because Hurtigruten was allegedly undercutting what local hotels could offer to accommodate the film crews.
Hurtigruten objected mightily to the “slave” characterization, with a spokesman calling it “a distortion of reality.” Trade Minister Iselin Nybø ended up, however, asking Hurtigruten last week to change what both she, local police and the labour unions believed to be illegal practice. Hurtigruten insisted that the arrangement was not illegal, and received some support from the state maritime authority.
Just before the weekend, however, Hurtigruten announced that it would swap the Fridtjof Nansen with one of its laid-up Norwegian-registered coastal passenger ships, MS Finnmarken. It will now join Hurtigruten’s MS Vesterålen at the pier in Åndalsnes, near where the rest of the filming will be taking place through the end of this month.
Anne Marit Bjørnflaten of Hurtigruten said the film production company had agreed to the swap, with Finnmarken beginning its new hotel role this week under Norwegian flag and with Norwegian crews. She still insisted that Hurtigruten had operated within the law when using the Nansen as an accommodation ship in Norway, calling the film company’s charter “an extraordinary one-time” deal. She claimed maritime authorities had also “confirmed” that the Nansen was operating within the law for internationally registered vessels.
“But after Minister Iselin Nybø was clear that she would then change the NIS rules, we started work on looking for alternative solutions,” Bjørnflaten told NRK. She said the “international crews” on the Nansen would not be adversely affected by the change.
Avoided biting a hand that feeds it
Hurtigruten has already been in trouble with Health Minister Bent Høie, after the Corona virus “scandal” on its other internationally crews ship MS Roald Amundsen. It clearly didn’t want more trouble with Minister Nybø, not least since it stands to receive NOK 330 million in state crisis compensation this year.
Financial news service E24 has reported that Hurtigruten had applied for and been granted NOK 180 million to help cover costs during the six-month period from March through August. It also is receiving state loan guarantees for NOK 150 million.
The company further stands to receive the full contract amount of NOK 850 million tied to its obligation to run ships up and down the Norwegian coast, serving remote ports along the way that are entitled to state transport support. E24 thus reported that Hurtigruten has retained liquidity, thanks to Norwegian state aid, during the Corona crisis. It also has tried to get passengers on cancelled cruises to accept vouchers for future cruises instead of cash refunds.