Despite the proliferation of casino resorts in Macau over the past decade, the prevalence of gambling among the general population has actually declined. Yet employees in the gaming industry have become disproportionately susceptible to developing gambling problems, prompting calls to keep them out of casinos after hours
Having dealt cards at a Macau peninsula casino for just over nine months, a croupier in her 40s surnamed Fong worked up the nerve to start pilfering chips to subsidize her extracurricular gambling habit. Over the course of a month, she managed to secret away MOP520,000 (US$65,000) worth of chips before she was caught by her employer.
Though dealer theft is practically inconsequential in the context of Macau’s multibillion dollar casino industry, Ms Fong’s crime— which is being investigated by Macau’s Judiciary Police—is indicative of what Davis Fong (no relation), director of the Institute for the Study of Commercial Gaming at the University of Macau, refers to as a “timebomb” that’s primed to go off as the second wave of Cotai megaresorts start opening next year and draw even more locals into the gaming workforce.
Casino staff are not allowed to gamble at venues operated by their employers, and so during Stanley Ho’s 42-year effective monopoly they had been unable to gamble at any casino in the city.
That changed after the industry was liberalized in 2002, paving the way for five new operators to open a string of venues beginning 2004. Now, employees of one operator are free to gamble at the properties of any rival operator.
Macau’s Social Welfare Bureau dealt with 134 problem gamblers last year, one out of four of whom were casino dealers. Considering dealers only constitute 6.8% of the city’s employed population, that suggests they are a highly susceptible group. Furthermore, more than one-third of the problem gamblers recorded by the bureau worked for casino operators, although the industry only employs 23.4% of Macau’s workforce.
The official statistics are likely to vastly understate the problem. The Macau Gaming Industry Workers Association published a survey this year that concluded 59.3% of casino employees, 285 out of 481 subjects polled, had participated in some form of gaming—ranging from mahjong to casino gambling—in the past 12 months. The survey notes that 77% of the gaming workers who showed symptoms of addiction have not sought help.
Casey Wong Im Fong, supervisor of labor group Gaming Employees Home, says, “When employees with gambling addictions seek our help it is usually related to managing their debts, including money they’ve borrowed from family members or loan sharks and unsettled credit cards payments, although the amount is on average not high—below MOP100,000 [US$12,500].”
DIMINISHED NOVELTY VALUE
While some point to the six new megaresorts slated to open in Cotai between over the next three years as a potential trigger for a spike in gambling problems among residents, the spread of casinos across the city has actually been accompanied by a steady fall in locals’ play.
According to the latest triennial government-commissioned survey published by the Institute for the Study of Commercial Gaming, the gaming participation rate of Macau residents aged between 15 and 64 has declined steadily from a high of 67.9% in 2003 to 59.2% in 2007, 55.9% in 2010 and 49.5% in 2013. Meanwhile, the proportion of residents showing mild signs of problem gambling fell to 1.9% last year, from 2.8% three years earlier, while the proportion of residents showing signs of pathological gambling fell to 0.9% from 2.8% over the same period.
“Compared with other neighboring jurisdictions, Macau is no longer the place in Asia with the highest rate of problem/pathological gambling,” states the report, pointing out that the pathological gambling rate in both Singapore and Hong Kong stood at 1.4%, according to the most recent official data.
“As the gaming sector has been liberalized since 2002, some residents have lost the sense of freshness and curiosity towards the casinos,” observes Davis Fong. “The rate was also higher [in 2010] when a bunch of new projects opened in Cotai from 2007 to 2009, but the residents have been getting used to them.
” “It might seem surprising because gambling in Macau is growing,” says Bo Bernhard, executive director of the International Gaming Institute at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “The first time you are exposed to something you tend to see an increase in use, but human beings are very adaptable and flexible so problem gambling declines after it sees an increase.”
In keeping with the allure of gambling among the inexperienced, many studies have shown that it is more prevalent among Macau’s youth relative to the overall population. Thus, the raising of the minimum age of entry to the city’s casinos from 18 to 21 after November 2012 was a major factor behind the drop in the participation rate in 2013.
According to Macau’s gaming regulator, the DICJ, as of August, some 630,000 individuals under 21 have been refused entry to the city’s casinos since the implementation of the law, while 657 individuals were found inside in breach of the ban.
“The gaming participation rate of residents between 15 and 24 was only 31.5% [in 2013], dropping by 12.4 percentage points from 2010, the age group undergoing the largest decline,” the report from the Institute states.
The efforts of the government and gaming operators to educate locals about problem gaming are another “major reason” for the fall in gambling participation among residents, says Zeng Zhonglu, a professor at the institute’s Gaming Teaching and Research Center.
Macau’s former chief executive, Edmund Ho, made problem gambling a priority in his 2007 policy address, and the issue has since been a recurring theme at successive policy addresses by Mr Ho and his successor, Fernando Chui Sai On. The government has collaborated with the University of Macau to set up kiosks at several casinos to promote responsible gaming and provide financial support for social welfare organizations to offer counseling services. Last year it ordered the closure of five slot parlous and two horse racing and sports betting centers located within residential areas. According to another regular University of Macau survey, some 60% of Macau residents polled last year were aware of the concept of responsible gaming, compared to only 16.2% before the government stepped up its campaign on the issue in 2009.
Last but probably not least, soaring table minimums may also be deterring locals from playing. In 2003, tables featuring HK$100 (US$13) minimums were in relatively abundant supply, but now, you’d be hard-pressed to find a table with a HK$500 minimum, effectively pricing out many locals, especially those most susceptible to developing gambling problems.
Macau’s 2012 casino entry law permits gamblers to apply for self exclusion from gaming venues for a period of up to two years. Exclusion orders can also be filed by the families of gamblers, but only with the approval of the individuals concerned. As of June, the DICJ had received 440 applications for exclusion, over 90% of which were filed by the problem gamblers themselves.
“The number of applications for exclusions is quite low. The administration should do more to promote responsible gaming and educate residents on discerning the signs of gambling addiction. Many still don’t have a clear understanding of the law after two years,” says Billy Song, president of the Macau Responsible Gaming Association. “And whether the order filed by the families requires the approval of the gamblers is also worth discussion.”
In Singapore, families of gamblers can apply to have them excluded without the individuals’ consent. But according to Edmund Loi Hoi Ngan of the Social, Economic and Public Policy Research Center at Macau Polytechnic Institute, Singapore’s approach is not necessarily effective. “Singapore has been known for taking an authoritative stance in its policies in all areas, but do more rigid measures really bring about desirable outcomes? Despite Singapore’s measures, problem gambling is still serious there,” he points out.
Meanwhile, casino workers’ groups want the law to be more flexible. “If a person is excluded, it does not only mean they can’t gamble, but also means they can’t work at a casino, which makes casino employees much less willing to apply for the order,” says Leong Sun Iok, vice president of the Macau Gaming Industry Workers Association. He maintains that “It’s easier for them [casino workers] to become addicted to gambling as they are in contact with gamblers and different kinds of games all the time, in addition to the fact that some employees may not have an all-round understanding of gaming, believing it is easy to win money.”
There are growing calls to ban employees of the gaming industry from setting foot in any casino after work. “When the [casino entry] law was being discussed in 2012, some legislators were already calling for that provision, but officials at the time reasoned the government should not use legislative means to deprive casino workers of the right to gamble,” says legislator Au Kam San. “But the prevalence of problem gambling among casino employees is still very high compared with other groups, so the government should take this issue more seriously and see whether there is need for the law to be amended.”
Casino operators and labor groups seem to agree it would be better if casino workers didn’t gamble at all, suggesting different ways to achieve that outcome.
Angela Leong On Kei, executive director of SJM Holdings and a directly elected member of the Legislative Assembly, believes it should be done by amending the law. “It is not enough” for the law to merely ban casino workers from gambling in the properties of their employers, she says. Ms Leong wants the ban to be expanded to cover all gaming venues, in line with the ban on Macau civil servants gambling in any of the city’s casinos.
Leong Sun Iok of the Macau Gaming Industry Workers Association suggests casino operators spell out in their contracts with staff that they must refrain from gambling as a condition of their employment. There is already precedent for this outside the gaming industry, with the Bank of China stipulating in its contracts with its Macau employees that they should not set foot in casinos. Ahead of such restrictions on casino workers gambling, Casey Wong of Gaming Employees Home calls for more staff training “to instill in them the value of managing their careers and finances, as well as to strengthen their knowledge of responsible gaming.”
The Social Welfare Bureau has said it would offer more responsible gaming courses for management and front-line staff at casinos in the second half of this year, and the operators are also stepping up their efforts.
Sands China launched a “Responsible Gaming Team Training Program” this year involving 5,000 of its employees. And Galaxy Entertainment Group has joined forces with Sheng Kung Hui Gambling Counseling and Family Wellness Center to offer training to more than 800 of its casino employees to promote responsible gaming and “a healthy work-life balance”.