Macao casinos shuffle their dealers’ hands

It was too good an opportunity for Stanley Ho to ignore.

When the Macao gaming tycoon’s arch-rival, Sheldon Adelson, chairman of the Las Vegas Sands empire, sacked 160 dealers at the Sands Macao in November for not being up to snuff, Mr Ho was quick to take advantage.

He invited the former Sands dealers to apply for jobs, declaring: “It is our duty of care to the Macao community to employ quality, talented local Macao residents and to nurture them for a long and successful career with our company.” His group, Sociedade de Jogos de Macao, has since hired 110 of them, the company said on Monday.

Mr Ho’s eagerness to hire Mr Adelson’s former dealers highlighted a problem that gambling companies now flocking to Macao face: dealer jobs are reserved for local residents. Macao pipped the Las Vegas Strip as the world’s largest gaming market by revenues late last year, but while the territory’s gaming revenues have trebled in the past six years, over the same period its population has increased by only 16 per cent to 510,000.

This is not far off Las Vegas’ population of 590,000. But casinos in Las Vegas, America’s fastest growing major city, can recruit dealers from surrounding Clark County (population 1.9m) or seek talent from across the US.

“If all the projects [under construction] open, are there enough Macanese to man the tables? No, there are not,” says one industry executive. “We need to discuss how we are going to staff this thing with the government.”

Management and support jobs at casinos and most positions at ancillary hotel and restaurant facilities can be held by non-residents if they are issued “blue cards” by the government.

But industry executives complain that securing a blue card can take six months or longer.

“It’s the number one strategic issue for us – it’s very difficult to get them,” says one senior casino executive.

The labour shortages may have social ramifications for Macao, critics say. Across Macao, tales are told of university students for saking tuition deposits and doctors’ receptionists abandoning their posts to take up casino jobs.

“Economically it represents development, but the consequences are unfortunate,” says Father Luis Xavier, whose 1885 church now sits in the shadow of Mr Adelson’s USD 2.3bn (GBP 1.2bn, EUR 1.8bn) Venetian Macao.

When it opens this summer, the Venetian Macao will have more than 700 tables, 3,000 rooms, a 1.2m?sq?ft convention centre, and 850,000?sq?ft of retail space.

People who share Father Xavier’s concerns about his new neighbour, which is just one of many big “integrated resorts” in the pipeline, worry that Macao risks becoming “a society of croupiers”. Casino executives say that they are simply doing their best to service explosive growth in a tightly regulated labour market.

Galaxy Entertainment – controlled by Hong Kong tycoon Lui Che-woo – ran around-the-clock training sessions for dealer trainees, the bulk of whom are in their late teens or early twenties, before the opening of two big casinos last year.

Mr Ho’s Sociedade de Jogos de Macao, which has been on the defensive ever since it lost its gaming monopoly in 2002, is under the most pressure. It has been losing dealers and market share to Mr Adelson, Mr Lui and Steve Wynn, who opened his Wynn Macau casino in September.

The sackings at the Sands not only gave Mr Ho a golden public relations opportunity, they also came just three months before he was due to inaugurate his first big new casino since the market’s 2002 liberalisation. The Grand Lisboa opens its doors this Sunday.

“It was seen as a free kick for SJM at the time because they had taken the lion’s share of dealer losses [to poaching],” says one Macao-based industry executive. “It was a free gift back for SJM.