As my tour of duty as Ambassador of Mexico to Trinidad and Tobago is drawing to a close, I wish to express my gratitude to the authorities and people of this great nation.
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Profiting from VICE NATION
In the first of a two-part series, we explore the world of legal vices, with a focus today on gaming and gambling.
Every morning at 10 am, Peter Smith* goes to one of his favourite locations near his place of work: the Play Whe Booth.
“You can’t win if you don’t take a chance,” he says as he diligently shades in the numbers on the slip before handing it over to the booth operator.
Peter is a 41-year-old technician from Chaguanas. He has been trying his hand at games of luck and chance for over 15 years.
“I started in my mid 20s and I’ve had some small winnings. I haven’t won the lotto yet, but one day,” he says with a wry smile on his face.
A gainfully employed father of two, Peter surmises that he has spent thousands of dollars at Play Whe booths across the nation.
For certain, he is not alone. There are thousands of Peters in T&T.
They all participate for the same reason and with the same dream: to one day score it big and change their lives financially as they know it.
Statistically speaking, the reality is that these individuals have a higher chance of getting struck by lightening than ever fulfilling their active gaming/gambling aspirations.
In spite of that they continue, armed with the belief that lady luck will one day smile on them.
They are part of a vice nation.
The National Lotteries Control Board (NLCB) sits at the centre of a multibillion-dollar legal gaming industry.
According to statements made by Minister of Finance Colm Imbert, the estimated revenue generated by the gaming industry in T&T is close to $16 billion annually.
Of this figure, estimates suggest that the NLCB contributes approximately $4 billion or quarter of the total industry revenue.
The company offers a selection of games ranging from the daily Play Whe (drawn four times a day) to the bi-weekly, multimillion-dollar lotto jackpot.
The remaining $12 billion comes from a combination of private members clubs and other betting and gaming outlets across T&T.
The growth of the casino industry, in particular, has been pronounced.
From mega-chains to single outlets, casinos dot almost every major district across T&T, with some literally next door to one another.
It is estimated that the industry employs between 7,000 and 35,000 people and that there are 200 members clubs across the country.
Sherry Persad represents the voice of the casino business in T&T.
Persad is the president of the T&T Members Club Association (TTMCA) and a director at Ma Pau casino.
A 21-year industry veteran, Persad understands better than most the nuances of the local gambling industry.
Questioned about why people flock to casinos in Trinidad, Persad said: “For many customers, casinos present a great form of adult relaxation and entertainment. They know they can come to a fairly quiet, safe place and enjoy themselves and win money at the same time. They also get food and drinks so it’s really an outlet of stress release for many people.”
Persad noted that one of the greatest misunderstandings that people have about the casino industry was the perception that somehow it was “illegal”.
“Our members pay taxes like all other registered businesses. In fact, we even pay taxes on our gaming equipment. We have to go to the magistrate’s court to get licences for our establishments, and since 2015, all members clubs have had to post a bond of $500,000 for their operations. So, we are far from illegal. We even follow a compliance programme as mandated by the Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU).”
Persad added that this perception has had a negative impact on many of the employees in the industry.
“Many of our employees have suffered tremendously and unfairly so. They’ve been rejected by banks and other financial institutions simply because they are casino workers. But these workers are tax-paying citizens like everyone else. We make NIS contributions for them,” said an exasperated sounding Persad.
The issue of regulating gaming and gambling in T&T has been one of the biggest challenges in bringing order to the industry.
Asked about whether her members (52 in total) were in favour of regulations, Persad said the collective sentiment in the industry is that it is long over due.
“We’ve been lobbying for 15 years to bring legislation to the gambling industry. In fact, we believe that poor legislation has led to a proliferation of casinos in the industry.”
To manage the casino and gaming explosion in T&T, as part of its legislative agenda, the Government tabled the Gambling (Gaming and Betting) Control Bill in 2016.
The bill is currently before a joint select committee of Parliament under review.
Commenting on the bill, Persad pointed out that the TTMCA had offered its suggestions on the path forward for the industry.
“We have given our comments and thoughts on the bill and have shared our recommendations. We hope our recommendations are considered before any final decision is made.”
The Ma Pau director stated that though resilient, the gambling industry was not immune to the economic downturn.
“Spending in the casino industry is down in line with the overall economic contraction. As much as people like to gamble, having hard decisions to make about how they manage their spending has caused many to reconsider how they entertain themselves and this has affected our industry.”
* Name has been changed
Proposed Gambling Operators Annual Licence Fees per device or table
1. Baccarat Table: $50,000
2. Black Jack Table: $60,000
3. Caribbean Stud Poker Table: $75,000.
4. Dice Table: $35,000
5. Regular Poker Table: $30,000
6. Roulette Table: $60,000
7. Rum 32 Table: $75,000
8. Sip San Table: $75,000
9. Slot Machine: $12,000
10. Every other table or device: $30,000
Quick facts about the Gambling (Gaming and Betting) Control Bill 2016
• Under the bill, the Government is proposing the establishment of a commission, which would be mandated to regulate the multi-billion dollar industry through the collection of annual taxes and the issuing of licences to operators and staff of gambling institutions.
• The establishment of a rehabilitation fund is one of the major initiatives proposed in Gambling (Gaming and Betting) Control Bill of 2016
• 2.5 per cent of all revenue collected by the government from regulation of the gambling industry is to be used for the rehabilitation of individuals addicted to vice.
• 5 per cent of all revenues collected by the proposed Gambling (Gaming and Betting) Control Commission are to be placed in a separate development fund to provide financial assistance for national sport, arts, culture and health projects.
• The commission and its staff will be financed by the revenue it collects, with the remainder, less the mandatory contributions to the rehabilitation and development funds being transferred to the consolidated fund annually.
• The proposed legislation will not affect live and simulcast horseracing which will continue to fall under the Betting Levy Board.
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