August 5, 2020 12:40 PM EDT

Crew members say they’ve been trapped aboard Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line ships for months without pay, “effectively held hostage” during the coronavirus pandemic, according to a class action lawsuit filed in federal court on Tuesday.

The suit alleges that thousands of workers have been “unnecessarily kept on the ships for months on end, many thousands of miles away from their homes and families” and “suffered lost wages and lost employment opportunities” as a result. After the pandemic shut down cruises in March, crew members were required to continue cleaning, cooking and maintaining their ships without pay, according to the lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida.

“This egregiously delayed repatriation is tantamount to false imprisonment of the crew,” the lawsuit states.

In a statement, Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line said the company has “worked tirelessly with local governments around the world to repatriate as many of our crew members as possible.”

“To date, more than 90 percent have safely returned home. For those whose governments have closed their borders and not permitted them to return, we have provided accommodations, food, and onboard credit for incidentals,” the statement said. “While we understand the strain that these difficult times have placed on our crew, in particular those who have been unable to return home, we are confident in the approach we’ve taken to treating all team members with transparency and care.”

In an earlier statement on July 21, announcing that it would not resume sailing operations until October per new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rules, the cruise line said it had “followed all required guidelines, including adhering to strict requirements for our onboard crew members, and installed the best safety protocols in the industry across our fleet to protect our guests and crew, who are always our top priority.”

Dragan Janicijevic, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, is a Serbian citizen who was employed on one of the cruise ships as a casino dealer. He told the Miami Herald that he and other employees had asked to be sent home in April, but were told the cruise line could not afford charter flights, which were initially required by the CDC to prevent disembarking crew members from potentially spreading the virus on commercial flights. “They were keeping us captive,” Janicijevic, who left the ship in late June, told the Herald.

When sailing operations were halted in March, the cruise line “forced all crew members aboard the ship to sign a document stating they were voluntarily staying onboard, without pay,” according to the lawsuit.

“The crewmembers were forced to sign these agreements by being threatened that they would not be rehired if they did not sign,” the lawsuit states. “This system of requiring crewmembers to work, without pay, is the equivalent of forced labor or peonage.”

In July, the CDC extended its no-sail order for cruise ships through September. Other cruise ship companies—including Carnival Corporation, Royal Caribbean Group and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings—have been paying working crew members, but not paying the non-working crew who remain on their ships, the Herald reported.

Write to Katie Reilly at Katie.Reilly@time.com.

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