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Growing inequality in Macau triggers protests

Growing social inequality has ignited a protest culture in the gaming city of Macau. Thousands have since taken to the streets this summer, inspired by similar protests around the region.

MACAU: About 1,000 casino dealers and servers took to the streets this week to demand better pay and working conditions. Back in May, an unprecedented 20,000 Macanese rallied and eventually forced the government to stop the planned rollout of a bill that would give retired officials lavish pension benefits.

These are scenes not common in the conservative city of Macau - Bill Chou Kwok-Ping, vice president of the New Macau Association, said: "The people here are politically apathetic. It is somewhat related to their feelings of fear - they fear they will lose their jobs and business opportunities if they voice out their opinion against the government, so they adopt a strategy of being apathetic to politics."

Dr Chou is an example of those fears realised - formerly an associate professor at the University of Macau, he has been active in political protests as one of the leaders of Macau's biggest pro-democracy group. He was sacked last week, for allegedly "imposing his political beliefs on students". Dr Chou is the second academic to be fired for similar reasons in three months. His New Macau Association is one of the organisers of an unofficial poll, inspired by Hong Kong's ballot in June, which asked residents whether they are satisfied with the rule of the current Chief Executive and whether they support universal suffrage by 2019.

Dr Chou said: "The people feel that economic growth only benefit a small number of privileged people who have a good connection with the government, while they themselves suffered. And also because the influence from Hong Kong, from Taiwan, and elsewhere, they've become more ready to take to the streets to protest against the government."

The vote comes as Fernando Chui is set to be re-elected as Macau's Chief Executive by a 400-strong election committee. He is running unopposed and pledged to focus on livelihood issues, including better transport links and more affordable housing.

While Macau's economy and casinos have boomed in the past 10 years, many locals have been left behind. Out of control housing prices have meant that couples are now delaying getting marriages while young people complain they have no alternative career path except the casino route. Gaming accounts for nearly half of the city's GDP and almost one-sixth of the 620,000 population work in gaming or related service industries.

And as the government is about to conduct a mid-term review of casino concessions next year, unions representing gaming workers have become more vocal. Professor Sonny Lo, Head of Social Sciences at The Hong Kong Institute of Education, said: "The unions hope to protest continuously so as to get the government's attention in the hopes that the government will hopefully do something about casino franchises in the near future."

Eight more casino and resort projects are planned on the Cotai Strip that rivals Las Vegas, and analysts predict that there will be shortfall of local workers to meet that demand.

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