At the conclusion of Macau’s annual “Golden Week” holiday boom on 6 October, smoking will be banned from the public gambling floors of the city’s casinos: 35 properties whose proximity to mainland China’s baccarat-mad millions generated revenues that surged 18 percent last year to surpass US$45 billion, a take equivalent to seven Las Vegas Strips.
The ban won’t apply to the private salons reserved for VIP play, the source of upwards of 65 percent of those revenues, and it appears the government’s final guidelines (these hadn’t been released as of this writing) will also provide plenty of wiggle room for operators to sequester their lucrative higher-limit cash tables in similarly styled “private” areas that will qualify as smoking.

Still, it’s a huge step—no gaming jurisdiction in Asia has attempted anything like it—and it’s coming in the midst of a worrisome four-month slide in gaming revenues which analysts now expect will depress 2014’s growth into the low single digits, the market’s worst performance since the global financial crisis.
It’s not the only thing in decline. The mood among casinos workers is also heading south, and they’ve taken to the streets on at least eight occasions this year, and with the threat looming of a strike during Golden Week, government is moving to isolate the leaders of the city’s first-ever labour movement with criminal investigations.
Macau, like Hong Kong, enjoys considerable autonomy as a repatriated “special administrative region” of the People’s Republic of China. 

That doesn’t extend to political principles, however. Such expressions are expected to be suitably loyal—“patriotic” is the term favored the ruling Communist Party—and toe the line laid down by Beijing. The problem with this is that both governments are so in thrall to the special interests that elect them—neither is subject to popular vote—that neither has been ineffective in dealing with a wealth divide that is steadily widening, driven mainly by soaring property prices. The discontent in Hong Kong has been loud and confrontational. The mood in Macau, by contrast, has always been apathetic, apolitical. But that’s changing at the tail end of a decade-long gambling boom that is seen as having made a well-connected minority fabulously wealthy while burdening the population at large with unattainable home prices and commercial rents, a failing infrastructure and outmoded systems for providing health care and education. 
This has lent a decidedly political undertone to the discontent that casino workers have begun voicing in the streets, and the authorities are keenly sensitive to it and quick to crack down. In July, a lecturer at St. Joseph University known for his pro-democracy views was fired, and the University of Macau suspended an associate professor in political science who serves as vice president of New Macau Association, a pan-democratic group. Late last month, police descended on activists attempting to conduct an unofficial Hong Kong-style referendum on the performance of Chief Executive Chui Sai On. The central government’s local liaison office had declared the poll illegal. The voting stations were shut down and five organizers were arrested.
A week later, Chui, the son of a construction magnate and scion of one of the clans who dominate the city’s political and commercial life, was awarded a second five-year term by an electoral committee dominated by business elites that are mostly pro-Beijing. 
Three members are casino executives.
But labour, unlike the pan-democrats, in not without clout. Numbers are on its side, for one thing. The government derives something like 80 percent of its revenues from the casinos, and the industry has grown to the point where it has outstripped the ability of the city’s adult-age population to staff it. Unemployment is running at 1.7 percent, one of the lowest rates in the world, and it was to mollify this straightened and potentially restive force that government has reserved croupiers’ jobs, the highest-paid unskilled jobs in Macau, for permanent residents as a matter of policy.
The downside of this is twofold: those same dealers will be in acute short supply beginning next year when the first of some eight new resorts under construction opens its doors; and thus their ability, if organized, to bring the giant gaming industry money machine to a halt is very real.
Smoking is one of the issues that has galvanized them. With collective bargaining not recognized under local law, unofficial trade unions have risen up to address it, along with complaints about salaries, benefits and policies regarding promotions. In the processed they’ve supplied precisely that organization that government and the industry fear.
At the same time, the smoking ban is arriving in a more problematic environment, operationally speaking, than it would have at almost any other time. The last several months have witnessed a dramatic fall-off in VIP play, a combination of Xi Jinping’s aggressive crackdown on corruption, declining property prices and tighter credit on the mainland, and a junket industry struggling with liquidity problems that are shaking out a lot of the smaller participants. 
The casinos are responding by pulling back on credit terms and other junket perks, and with table game growth capped by law at 3 percent a year, they’re also moving precious baccarat seats away from VIP and into the high-limit, high-margin cash sector known as “premium mass,” a lucrative strategy to which the smoking ban poses a direct threat.
Mass revenue growth is still strong but since the spring the rate of it has declined by about half, mainly because the central government has gone after abuses in the visa system for travel through Macau to third countries, which is cutting into trips by gamblers (and junket agents), and because it’s also harder now to skirt currency-export limits in the wake of a scandal that proved a considerable embarrassment for Macau authorities earlier this year when it was revealed that large numbers of swipe devices tied to China’s popular UnionPay card were being smuggled in from the mainland to process phony purchases. 
Given all this, it’s possible that Cloee Chao, a floor supervisor at Wynn Macau, was not entirely surprised when she was called in for questioning by police earlier this month in connection with her involvement in an August demonstration by croupiers and other front-line staff outside Grand Lisboa, the casino flagship of SJM Holdings, the successor to Stanley Ho’s monopoly.
Chao, a 34-year-old single mother of two, is a founder of Macau Gaming Industry Frontline Workers and Forefront of Macau Gaming, grassroots advocacy groups that have led public protests this year targeting Sands China, Galaxy Entertainment Group, three against SJM, and the industry collectively. She became active, as she told Bloomberg, after tiring of working in an atmosphere so thick with cigarette smoke it made her ill. “I just couldn’t stop coughing. I was scared,” she said. “If I died, what would happen to my daughters?” 
On the eve of Chui’s re-election, Forefront and Frontline led a work slowdown and sick-out at Grand Lisboa, the first job action in the history of the Ho empire. As relations with SJM management have deteriorated they have petitioned the government’s Labour Affairs Bureau to assist them with negotiating for pay raises and other benefits. They have said they will strike during Golden Week if progress is not forthcoming—a well-aimed threat that could be massively disruptive—Golden Week commences on 1 October, China’s National Day commemorating the founding of the People’s Republic, and after the Lunar New Year it is typically the second busiest time of the year for gambling and tourism in Macau.
Chao’s fellow activists Ieong Man Teng, Lei Kuok Keong and Ung Kim Ip also have been summoned for questioning by police in connection with the August demonstration, and according to news reports, they have been informed they face the same charge—“aggravated disobedience”—for allegedly breaching a police cordon, an accusation they deny. 
“I feel intimidated,” Chao said. “It’s a warning and a threat to me.”
In classic Chinese fashion the families have not been spared either. Chao told Bloomberg she didn’t know she was in trouble until police phoned her elderly parents. “My father and mother were scared and were crying. They thought something had happened to me.”
No charges had been filed against her and the others, as of this writing. The investigation is reported to be ongoing.