Poor losers in casino boom

James Pomfret

The buzz inside Macau’s new casino halls may suggest a revival of the gambling mecca’s economy, but for the likes of Ho Heng-kuok times are tough and the chips are down.

The head of a small labor union tucked away in a deserted, run-down shopping center, Ho says the growing ranks of blue-collar laborers like himself have suffered more than gained from the former Portuguese colony’s economic renaissance.

They are battling competition from an influx of cheap, often illegal Chinese laborers, rising living costs and corruption. „The people have lost confidence and patience in the government,“ said Ho, president of the Macau Workers‘ Union.

Last week, frustration boiled over at a May Day labor march in the normally apolitical city. In ugly scenes, police fired warning shots into the air and used batons and dogs to control some 6,000 workers and civil servants.

The transformation of Macau has been remarkable since Portugal handed it back to Chinese rule in 1999.

The liberalization of its once-monopolistic gaming sector lured the likes of Las Vegas gaming barons Sheldon Adelson and Steve Wynn.

Their resort-style casinos sent gross domestic product soaring and flushed the sleepy enclave with higher-paying jobs, driving it past Las Vegas as the world’s biggest gaming market. „All these things are so positive, but people don’t feel that they are enjoying this, so there’s a gap in their expectancy, a discrepancy in the community,“ said Larry So, a social work academic at the Macau Polytechnic Institute.

Macau legislators like Jose Coutinho say the May Day clash signaled deep-seated resentment towards the government for failing to redistribute wealth fairly to poorer parts of society.

„It’s the culmination of abuse of power that has been running since after the handover,“ said Coutinho, president of the Macau Civil Servants‘ Union, which joined in last week’s march.

„Abuse of power, not applying the rule of law, and poor transparency has resulted in heavy corruption at the highest level,“ Coutinho added.

Last December, Secretary for Transport and Public Works Ao Man-long was arrested in a high-profile corruption case, accused of taking millions in bribes from public project contractors.

The enclave has also been tainted by allegations of murky financial dealings, one of which led to the freezing of North Korean funds at Banco Delta Asia.

Away from Macau’s poorest districts and agitating unionists, Macau’s conservative Chinese public has kept quiet and plucked the new economic fruits.

„There’s a new middle class coming up in the community simply because more young people are joining the casinos … I have kids studying for a year or so then, whoosh, off they go to work in the casinos as dealers,“ said So, who teaches social work.

Sixty-year-old Ma Kun-meng, who cleans cars for a living – some 60 a day – on a spit of reclaimed land near one of Macau’s quiet, colonial-mansion- lined avenues, says life is better now, with more luxury vehicles on the streets to sustain him.

But government figures show that of Macau’s 295,000-strong working population, around 20 percent live on less than HK$ 4,500 per month. Inflation has also shot up, particularly housing and rental prices, further straining blue collar wages.

Fong Sam-mui, 57, is a case in point. A social welfare recipient afflicted with lung disease and chronic arthritis, she has waited months for medical treatment at Macau’s sole, over-extended public hospital.

„Macau is useless; we keep asking the government to help us but they never do,“ she said in her small, dingy flat, which she rents with three friends for around HK$ 9,500 a month. „For us, lower income groups, we don’t have many benefits or hope.“