MADRID - Cuban sailors working on luxury cruises are reduced to " 'slaves' who only get paid 20% of their wages while the rest of their salaries go to the Cuban government," according to a report by human rights groups.
MSC Cruises, one of the world's biggest cruise line companies, was named in the report released Wednesday by Prisoners Defenders and accused of keeping the passports of Cuban sailors.
Both the cruise line and the Cuban government deny any wrongdoing.
Sailors, along with doctors, engineers, architects and musicians, are among about 100,000 Cuban professionals who work abroad as part of an international outreach program launched by Cuba in the 1960s. The program's aim is to expand the communist government's influence in the world, and in recent years it has become an important source of revenue for the Cuban regime.
Prisoners Defenders, a Spain-based human rights group linked to the Cuban opposition, Human Rights Watch and lawmakers from the European Parliament accuse the Cuban government of exploiting its own citizens by taking an 80% cut from their wages.
The MSC Grandiosa cruise ship leaves the Chantiers de l'Atlantique shipyard site in Saint-Nazaire, Oct. 31, 2019.
Doctors contend they have been sexually abused, posted to dangerous places and face an eight-year ban from Cuba if they decide to leave the government service.
These international missions are a lucrative source of income for the Cuban government, bringing Havana $8.5 billion every year, according to the Prisoners Defenders report, compared with tourism, which brings in $2.9 billion in annual income.
About 41% of Cubans working abroad say they have suffered sexual assault during their posts, the report said.
In a complaint to the International Criminal Court and the United Nations, human rights groups allege that Cuba breaches the basic rights of the professionals who form part of Cuba's international missions.
The Cuban government has defended its record on its foreign health workers.
The Cuban Embassy in Madrid did not reply to requests by VOA for comment on the report.
A spokesperson for MSC Cruises said in a statement that any shipping company employing Cuban staff had to deal with the Selecmar state agency in Havana and added that storing crew members' passports centrally on board was standard practice.
However, Jordi Canas, a European lawmaker from the Spanish centrist Citizens party and part of the Euro Latin American Parliamentary Assembly, which is linked to the European Parliament, said at a press conference Wednesday: "Cuba is more like a slave plantation than a free country. Free Cuba treats its people like slaves to generate money."
Dayami Gonzalez, a Cuban doctor who has worked in Ecuador for eight years, said she received threats after she said she wanted to leave the Cuban government mission.
An estimated 30,000 Cuban doctors work in 60 countries around the world, mainly in Latin America and Africa, and the Cuban authorities draw up strict rules to stop them from defecting once they are abroad.
Medics and other Cubans working abroad who refuse to continue to work for the international mission can be barred from seeing their families back home for years, according to Cuban government laws.
Prisoners Defenders has taken testimony from 1,111 Cuban professionals who have been working abroad and says it has evidence of systematic human rights violations.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday called for a federal task force to deal with human trafficking in Cuba, North Korea and other countries.
"Our commitment to combat #HumanTrafficking is backed by action and engagement from across the federal government," he tweeted.
Cuban officials reacted angrily.
"The deceitful allegations by US Secretary of State linking Cuba to trafficking in persons seek to tarnish the fraternal effort of Cuba's medical cooperation that saves lives, whose unquestionable merits have received international recognition," Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez tweeted.
In 2019, Prisoners Defenders issued a report saying Cuban doctors suffered abuses when they were sent abroad. Its latest report has broadened the scope of this complaint to include Cuban sailors and other professionals.
The latest allegations came as Cuba rejected accusations by rights groups and diplomats that its courts system had unfairly jailed protesters following widespread protests in July on the island.
In the largest protests in decades, thousands took to the streets to voice their anger over shortages of food, medicine and electricity when COVID-19 cases soared.
The Cuban state prosecutor said it had charged 710 people with crimes including vandalism, assault and "grave public disorder."
Human rights groups, the U.S. government and the European Union have condemned the trials of the protesters, saying they lacked transparency.
However, the Cuban state prosecutor's office said these accusations were "manipulations of public opinion" and it had "verified compliance with the rights and constitutional guarantees of due process" under Cuban law.
Some information for this report came from Reuters.