A new generation of casino workers is uniting and shaking up the casino industry. Observers say the city’s new political atmosphere is spreading to the gaming world, guided by young casino dealers who do not feel connected to the traditional gaming workers associations. Some of them are looking for a seat in the Legislative Assembly. Times are changing for labour relations in the gaming sector. This year, thousands of gaming workers participated in several actions targeting the six gaming companies, the biggest such protests since 1999. They complained that their benefits and wages were not being improved by their employers. They walked off the job, called in sick all together at the same time and worked to rule, challenging gaming operators during National Day Golden Week, a peak season for casinos. Workers, guided by a new association, Forefront of The Macau Gaming, argued that their employers were ignoring their complaints and avoiding them for some time. Eventually, the situation escalated into public demonstrations. This comes amidst a gaming revenue slowdown, and while operators are looking at staffing new projects in Cotai. It is challenging the industry. Workers ask for an improved promotion system and smoke-free casino floors by 2016 plus better wages and benefits. Radical voices Macau-watcher Larry So Man Yum says that the political atmosphere has changed since protesters organised against a controversial bill to give generous retirement packages to the outgoing Chief Executive and secretaries. They managed to have the bill shelved by the government. “There’s a feeling that if they organise they can change policy. In the casino area, a number of people have seen discrepancies regarding promotion and wages and they started to organise. “When they first started – especially when they organised against Galaxy [Entertainment Group] – Galaxy literally surrendered to the point that other casinos also started giving in. All these surrendering actions encouraged casino workers to press for more,” he says. In August, Galaxy announced a wage hike after some 600 workers took to the streets, organised by the Forefront of The Macau Gaming. The next target was Sands China Ltd, and so the movement escalated. Directly-elected lawmaker and unionist José Pereira Coutinho adds that casino workers have realised that they were working in hazardous conditions, especially when the partial smoking ban was established for gaming floors. Meanwhile, a full ban was imposed on the mass-market gaming floors, excluding VIP rooms. Work was also jeopardising family life for employees [because of the shift system], he says. “They also realised that the rules for promotion are not that transparent, as casinos are creating job positions that establish the same duties for different salaries,” he added. Mr. Coutinho also slams the Labour Affairs Bureau for its lack of monitoring. He says gaming operators “take advantage of grey areas of the labour law”. Hence, he urges the government to improve the labour relations law. Drastic action Ioeng Man Teng and Cloee Chao are the founders of the new association. The Forefront of The Macau Gaming started as an Internet forum two years ago, with Mr. Ioeng the organisation’s director. “We created this organisation when some gambling industry workers, including me, faced a bad working environment and unfair salary and benefits. But when we asked the traditional associations for help, the associations couldn’t really help the workers, so I organised a new association,” he says. He concedes they have a more radical style than other associations, explaining that they first tried to submit letters and discuss the issues directly with companies but were rebuffed. “We didn’t have a reasonable result, so we organised a demonstration. We had to take drastic action because we ran out of patience. The demonstrations were the last resort,” he says. He slams gaming operators for not communicating with them. “Maybe they fear if they talk to us after we take action that will help us unite more workers against them, so until now we still can’t have good communication with the companies,” he says. Mr. Ioeng says gaming workers are currently facing problems that are difficult to solve, especially related to the companies’ bad management. “Even if we complain to the Labour Department, we can’t get help due to imperfections in the law, and some workers worry that if they complain a lot the companies will punish or dismiss them”. He urges the government to improve the labour law. He also hints that if operators had provided “reasonable” salaries and benefits to workers when the industry was flourishing, workers would not have to “fight against them”. Ms. Chao says that workers have more negotiating power now. Human resources are a very important asset for casinos. The city’s unemployment rate is 1.7 percent. “However, even they need more workers for dealer positions; they didn’t raise salaries, so workers will keep fighting until they get reasonable salaries,” she says, claiming operators are not open to talking with workers. “Even every time after the demonstration workers submit a letter concerning their requests to the operator they don’t reply,” she says. Ms. Chao says other associations cannot help. “Traditional associations accept financial aid from the government. They can’t go against the government or operators a lot. They only organise some activities like travel or parties; they don’t fight the operators,” she says. Forefront of The Macau Gaming has around 100 members but according to Ms. Chao any casino worker is free to join their activities. Silent bridge The Macau Gaming Industry Employees Association, formed in 2002, is one of the oldest gaming workers associations here and runs a training centre for new casino dealers. Association vice-president Lawrence Tai did not share how many members it has but says his association “clearly” understands what the gaming workers are requesting and supports them. However, they would rather solve their problems using less radical strategies. “From the very first day our association was formed, we opted to solve the problems between workers and casino [management] by communication and negotiation in meetings rather than radical action such as demonstrations. As we all know, the gaming industry is the main and most important industry in Macau; as a responsible association in society, we don’t want to [enflame] the conflict between the gaming workers and casinos, as it will result in harming Macau,” he says. Mr. Tai says that since 2003 working conditions in casinos have improved a lot. “However, if we compare [our situation] with casinos in other developing places we really have a lot to achieve”. He does not agree that there is poor communication between employers and employees in the casino industry. “In our experience, all casino operators would like to resolve the problems peacefully rather than [allow matters to get] out of control. They would rather their workers work happily than angrily. “But most of the problems surface in middle level management, as they get the messages from frontline workers but do not totally reflect them to the higher level, causing problems”. His association, he continues, is acting as a silent bridge for casino operators and workers. “Most of our members would like to ask for our help than join the radical activities as they just want to improve their working conditions and living standards not fight the casino operators. In the future, we’d like to have more ongoing meetings with both casino operators and workers, and hope that we can [identify] and resolve the problems before they occur,” he says. Mr. Tai believes that nowadays casino workers are much better educated than in the past, and that they are all very much aware of their rights, meaning that they have more negotiating power. According to Larry So, the younger generation thinks that the older gaming workers associations cannot represent them. He urges these organisations to review their structures. “They found that they are trading their wellbeing. This is a good lesson for older associations. Is their way effective?” he asks. Not one of the six gaming operators replied to our request for comment. Some have stated in public press releases that they are always open to listening to their employees’ problems, denying the scathing criticism made by the Forefront of The Macau Gaming. Macau Business also tried to interview unionists and lawmakers: Kwan Tsui Hang and Ella Lei Cheng I – representatives of the city’s main union – also declined to comment on these prominent social issues. Official data shows that average earnings of full-time dealers in the second quarter rose by 7.1 percent year-on-year to MOP25,727 (US$2,966).
New gaming workers representatives are looking for a seat in the Legislative Assembly Ioeng Man Teng, 29, has been a casino dealer since he was 20 years old. He joined the 2013 legislative elections as the third candidate of Jason Chao Teng Hei’s ticket. Mr. Chao did not manage to get elected for the second time in a row; regardless, Mr. Ioeng wants to join the elections again. “Many workers work in the gaming companies, and we have to have a representative in the Legislative Assembly. We need to have more ways to express the workers’ opinions and have a say in the approval of laws,” he says. Cloee Chao, 34, is a single mother of two. She started working as a casino dealer in 2012. In the same year, she joined a Labour Day demonstration organised by the Forefront of The Macau Gaming. She objected to the new smoking rules for casinos, which only imposed a partial ban on gaming floors. Patrons could continue to smoke in 50 percent of the gaming floors, designated as smoking areas. She recalls the first days of the new Association. “Not so many people were willing to go out to show what they wanted but now more and more people are joining us. “Over the past 10 years a dealer’s salary has been higher than that in other careers but with Macau’s economy growing so fast the advantage of being a dealer has faded. Operators’ profits are increasing but our salaries and benefits haven’t changed. So, dealers have to go out to fight for their rights,” she says, adding that casino dealers are now more united and powerful. “Before, if clients got angry because of bad luck they were very bad to the dealer, saying dirty words and mistreating us. Even if clients were wrong or unfair, our boss would still ask us to apologise to clients. But now it’s better; the boss will not force us to say sorry and with the ban on smoking clients can’t blow smoke directly into our face when they’re mad”. In the future, she hopes casino workers can have representatives in the Legislative Assembly. “Over 100,000 people work in the gaming industry, so we ought to have a voice,” Ms. Chao says.