Cloee Chao remembers when she first decided to challenge the billionaires of the world's largest gambling hub. The 34-year-old single mother of two was working in a Macau casino in 2012 and the second-hand smoke was so thick she started hacking up black phlegm.
"I just couldn't stop coughing," she said. "I was scared. If I died, what would happen to my daughters?"
Chao started a union, at first, just to get cleaner air. After her employer, Wynn Macau, and other casinos ignored them, the battle escalated. Since then, Chao has organised thousands of employees to fight for better wages and working conditions. She has led workers into the streets seven times this year in the most widespread labour unrest yet at Macau's casinos.
The protests threaten profits at some of the most lucrative businesses in the world. The former Portuguese colony has seen gambling revenue soar tenfold over the past decade to US$45.2 billion last year, seven times the size of the Las Vegas Strip. The billionaires behind the casinos include Las Vegas Sands chairman Sheldon Adelson, Wynn Resorts chairman Steve Wynn and Galaxy Entertainment Group founder Lui Che-woo.
Chao and her union are planning additional demonstrations, after at least 1,400 members turned out last week for the largest protest by casino workers so far this year. The clashes come as Macau has seen growth slow with a corruption crackdown on the mainland that has high rollers avoiding casinos.
"We don't rule out strikes or violent actions if the casino companies continue to ignore us and pretend nothing has happened," Chao said at the end of last week's protest organised by the Macau Gaming Industry Frontline Workers' union that she co-founded.
Chao is an unlikely radical. She was born in Macau and started in the casino industry as a 17-year-old waitress fresh out of school. She worked as a dealer at casinos owned by Galaxy and SJM Holdings before joining Wynn Macau, where she oversees two dealers in a room for VIPs.
She said she was helping to organise the protests for workers and for her daughters, who are nine and 13. Chao, divorced two years ago, brought her older daughter to last week's march so she could see what her mother was fighting for.
"My children will probably follow my path to be casino workers if they want to live in Macau," said Chao. "I won't restrain them, but I won't let what my generation is going through become their future."
Chao has broadened her fight to money as well as working conditions. Though Macau requires that casinos hire locals for key jobs, including dealers, pay hikes have been undercut by inflation, especially in housing costs.
The average monthly salary for Macau dealers was 19,000 patacas last year, an increase of about 4.6 per cent per year over 10 years, said Carlos Siu, an associate professor of gaming research at Macau Polytechnic Institute. Inflation also rose 4.6 per cent over that period.
"The workers feel they're bearing the brunt of inflation despite the explosive growth of the city's gaming industry over the decade," Siu said.
The casinos are making an effort to keep the peace, perhaps in part because of the profits they have to protect. Galaxy, Sands China and Wynn Macau have all announced additional staff bonuses in recent months. After more than 1,000 protesters marched in front of Galaxy's property last month, Lui said he would consider distributing stock to the casino's employees.
Sands China said last month it had boosted wages for some workers by 5 per cent, improved benefits and agreed to pay one month salary as a special reward. Galaxy, Wynn Macau, MGM China and SJM declined to comment further when asked about the union's demands and protest plans. Sands China and Melco Crown didn't comment.
The Frontline union, made up mostly of casino dealers, has stepped up its protests to seven this year from two last year. Besides higher salaries and better working conditions, they want stricter rules written into law to ban foreign workers from taking their jobs.
Smoking remains a contentious issue. Many of the mostly male punters chain smoke to stay awake while they gamble throughout the night. VIP rooms are often cloudy with smoke.
While the city's health agency announced in May that all casinos were required to implement smoking bans on their gaming floors from October 6, the restriction didn't include VIP rooms, said Antonio Ng, an elected Macau lawmaker. Among protesters' demands last week was a call for the ban to extend to these rooms, which are reserved for high-rollers who bet at least HK$5 million per trip.
Casinos have lifted Macau's economy since the colony was transferred to China's rule in 1999. Macau's gross domestic product per capita, measured in current US dollars, increased more than sixfold since the handover to US$91,376 in 2013, making it among the richest territories globally after Luxembourg, Norway and Qatar, according to the World Bank.
Macau's casinos are counting on more growth with all six of the city's operators opening new resorts.
"We'll see the bargaining power of the casino worker union strengthen because of the limited number of labour," said Elio Yu, an associate professor for public affairs at the University of Macau. "The dealers are taking advantage of this and will try to escalate the situation further."
The labour market is tightening. Macau's unemployment rate held at a record low of 1.7 per cent from May to July, government data showed.
The cost of labour will probably rise between 10 per cent and 15 per cent annually in the coming years for the casino companies, according to Deutsche Bank analyst Karen Tang.
Workers are determined to improve their lot. Last week, they marched through Macau waving banners that read: "Share the fruits of economic boom, we fight for a higher pay."
Stopping outside the city's casinos, the protesters blew whistles and chanted slogans. Police officers and security guards put up barricades, with some of them linking hands as they blockaded the casinos' entrances to prevent demonstrators from entering. Chao said 7,000 turned up for the protest, while police put the number at 1,400.
Weng Yi-jian, a 45-year-old dealer at Sands China's Venetian casino, joined the rally outside his place of employment. He said his monthly pay had risen by about 6 per cent annually over the last seven years to 19,000 patacas, but that was too slow to keep up with spiraling property prices which rose by tenfold in the past decade.
"I thought being a dealer would allow me to buy a house in a few years; I realised it's just a dream," said Weng.
He chanted with the crowd. "Shame on Sands for bullying workers!"
US fast-food workers to hit restaurants with civil disobedience campaign
McDonald's, Wendy's and other fast-food restaurants in the United States are expected to be targeted with acts of civil disobedience that could lead to arrests today as labour organisers escalate their campaign to unionise the industry's workers.
Kendall Fells, an organising director for Fast Food Forward, said workers in dozens of cities had been trained to peacefully engage in civil disobedience ahead of the planned protests.
Fells declined to say what exactly was in store for the protests in around 150 US cities. But workers involved in the movement recently cited sit-ins as an example of strategies they could use to intensify their push for higher pay and unionisation. Past protests have targeted a couple of restaurants in each city for a limited time, in many cases posing little disruption.
The "Fight for $15" campaign has gained national attention at a time when income disparities have become a hot political issue.
Many fast-food workers make little more than the federal minimum wage of US$7.25 an hour. That equates to around US$15,000 a year for 40 hours a week. Workers are often subject to unpredictable schedules and don't know how many hours they'll be given from week to week, as restaurants try to avoid paying overtime.
The campaign was designed to bring attention to such hardships, which few customers thought about, said Catherine Fisk, a professor of labour law at the University of California in Irvine. She said such actions could help "change the mindset" about fast-food jobs.
Fisk noted that mining and manufacturing jobs were also once considered low-wage jobs with dim prospects. That changed in the 1930s, however, after legal protections for unionising and actions by fed-up workers helped transform the jobs into more middle-class jobs.
The National Restaurant Association said the fast-food protests were attempts by unions "to boost their dwindling membership". The industry lobbying group said it hoped organisers would be respectful to customers and workers during the protests.