The casino city where staff keep disappearing

Nicole Massa Helm Image copyright Goncalo Lobo Pinheiro
Image caption Nicole Massa Helm has trouble keeping her staff

Cafe owner Nicole Massa Helm says her staff keep disappearing.

But far from them being abducted by aliens, or Ms Helm having to put up missing persons signs, she knows exactly where they have gone - to work in a casino instead.

And you can bet that it will just keep on happening.

Ms Helm's business, Lax Cafe, is based in Macau, the tiny Chinese special administrative region, 60km (37 miles) west of Hong Kong.

A former Portuguese colony, and city in all but name, Macau is one of the most crowded places on the planet.

It may have a population of just 643,000, but they are crammed into an area of only 30.3 sq km (11.6 sq miles). This makes Macau the world's most densely populated country or territory. People in Hong Kong have three times as much personal space.

Towering over Macau's economy - in more ways than one - are its vast casinos, which account for about half of its GDP (gross domestic product), and employ one fifth of all working people.

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Image caption Many of Macau's casinos are hard to miss

A gambling town to put Las Vegas in the shade, it has 35 casinos, attracting punters from across Asia, and in particular from mainland China.

While the number of Chinese visitors has recently dipped as China's economy has slowed, the casinos still do big business, and pay very good wages.

The average monthly salary for a full-time casino employee is 19,000 pataca ($2,363; £1,661), according to official figures. This compares with 12,000 pataca in the restaurant sector, and as low as 8,200 pataca for shop workers.

This means that small business owners such as Ms Helm find it difficult to find and retain staff who are tempted away by the higher wages on offer in the casinos.

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Image caption Macau's casinos pay good wages

Add high rents, and wider staffing shortages caused by the Macau government's strict limits on the number of foreign workers, and running a small firm in Macau can be a difficult business.

Ms Helm, 33, who employs 14 people at her cafe, says: "The hardest part is retaining staff, especially locals.

"We can never compete with the big ones [the casinos]. The first thing locals judge is that you won't be able to pay what they need.

"And, even if they accept the job, shortly after they disappear."

Immigration controls

Bruno Simoes, the owner of two small firms in the events and exhibitions sector, says he is now considering relocating his businesses from Macau to Hong Kong, or mainland China.

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Image caption Bruno Simoes warns that his company may have to leave Macau altogether

This comes after the Macau government refused his application to employ two non-local employees.

The 45-year-old, who is part of Macau's small Portuguese community, says: "The trend is to disinvest from Macau. How can we grow under such circumstances?

"Actually, for the past year and a half we already have an office in Zhuhai [just across the border from Macau], where we do outsourcing for certain activities for which we have no people available in Macau."

While Macau's businesses bemoan the strict limits on workers from mainland China or foreign countries, the government counters that such immigration controls are necessary due to the region's small size and population density.

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Image caption Macau at night can rival Las Vegas when it comes to bulb wattage

Although the administration does not set annual limits on non-local employees, new approvals are rare. At present some 182,246 people from mainland China or overseas live and work in Macau, and the government seems loath to allow that to grow.

For most foreign workers, they are only given a "blue card", a work permit attached to a certain employment contract. The one exception is for people from Portugal, who have an easier time getting residency, thanks to the historical connection.

Mr Simoes says that officials tell him that there were enough local workers, but that he isn't prepared to offer them enough money.

Yet he continues to insist that there simply aren't enough for him to add to his existing staff of 12.

High rents

Back at the Lax Cafe, Ms Helm says that high rent is her other problem.

"It's very tough, there's no limit [on rent rises] for shops" she says.

Image copyright Goncalo Lobo Pinheiro
Image caption Calista Chan is planning to branch into online retailing

Ms Helm adds that her rent has increased almost three-fold over the past four years, and if it continues going up, she doesn't think she will survive.

The problem of high rent is also an issue for Calista Chan, the owner of organic food shop Concept H.

To limit her exposure, when she set up the business a year ago she deliberately chose a small neighbourhood away from the casinos and tourists, which offered cheaper rental charges.

Image copyright Goncalo Lobo Pinheiro
Image caption Macau's small retailers have to deal with high rents

Unless her landlord substantially increases her rent this year, she intends to keep the shop, but also expand the business online. "Rents are too high now," she says.

Macau business consultant Filipe de Senna Fernandes is currently avoiding the cost of renting an office by not having one.

Image copyright Goncalo Lobo Pinheiro
Image caption Filipe de Senna Fernandes holds informal meetings at a local cafe

Instead, he and his colleagues at Interface Consulting hold their informal meetings at a local cafe.

Mr Senna Fernandes says that while he may get an office in the future, at present he doesn't need one, because if a company requires his services he simply goes to its workplace.

Stanley Au Chong Kit, the president of Macau's Small and Medium Enterprises Association, says his members have suffered since the gambling sector was liberalised a decade ago, leading to a casino boom.

"We are being cut out by the gaming industry and peripheral enterprises," he says.

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Image caption Jacky So Yuk Chow says that Macau's small firms are generally very small indeed

Mr Au says small firms have a better chance of survival than medium-sized ones in Macau, because they don't need to employ as many - or any - staff, and have smaller premises. He adds that the longer established small firms avoid rents all together because they own their own premises.

Jacky So Yuk Chow, the dean of the Faculty of Business Administration at the University of Macau, agrees.

"Small businesses in Macau are micro, they're very small," he says.

"They are mostly in the food and services industry. If you go to smaller shops, most likely the husband cooks in the kitchen, and the wife is at the counter."