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Gamblers struggle with money puzzle in Covid-19 curbs


A casino on Kimathi Street in Nairobi in November 2019. FILE PHOTO | SALATON NJAU | NMG

At the time casinos were ordered shut following the Covid-19 pandemic, Caroline Kiome was earning at least Sh100,000 monthly.

For the seven years she has worked in the casino industry as a floor staff, the 29-year-old lived in the lush Kileleshwa suburbs where paying rent and feeding were not a problem.

But being jobless has forced her to move in with two of her friends, survive on a meal a day and do deliveries for a liquor shop to earn Sh300.

Her story is similar to Caroline Nyongesa’s, a casino manager with two children.

Shutting of casinos was a double tragedy for the household since her husband too works in the same industry.

“Luckily, our landlord has been lenient but feeding has been difficult. We are relying on food from our parents in the countryside,” she says.

On March 23, the Betting Control and Licensing Board (BCLB) shut down all betting shops and casinos to curb the spread of coronavirus, after the first case was reported in the country on March 13.

The casinos — including popular venues like Mayfair Casino, Casino Flamingo, the Golden Key Casino, and the Senator Casino — sent their staff home on unpaid leave to adhere to the directive.

On the other hand, lovers of table games at the casinos were deprived of live entertainment they derived from games such as blackjack, poker, roulette and slot games.

It is estimated that there are at least 1,300 slot machines in land based venues alone and 200 gaming tables throughout the country.

The Kenyan gambling industry has rapidly become a multi-million-shilling business, and according to surveying platform Geopoll, 70 percent of gamblers are male. This could be linked to the gender’s affinity to sports.

Technological advancements have seen the sprouting of online casino ventures, plunging the youth in debt as they borrow to play , a case that has compelled the government to enact tough laws to tame unscrupulous dealers.

Interior Cabinet Secretary Fred Matiang’i, last year said industry statistics paint a grim picture of addictive betting that has caused social strife, financial ruin and even suicides.

The March ban on casinos left operators staring at huge losses and threw the more than 10,000 workers in the gaming industry into unemployment.

The announcement spelt doom given that the BCLB said the ban will be in force for an indefinite period.

“In view of these developments, you are hereby directed to close down all casinos and betting shops with effect from the date of this circular, until further notice,” Peter Ngugi, the BLCB director.

Concerned that their workstations are on the verge of being closed permanently, the casino workers are now pleading with the government to hear their cry and ease restrictions on casinos.

Kenya Casino Employee Union has written to Dr Matiang’i asking him to allow them to reopen their workstations, but with strict adherence to rules for containing the coronavirus.

The union notes that the casino employees’ lives and that of their 30,000 dependants are headed for doom if the government does not intervene.

The union’s secretary general Benson Luganji said the hope that the workers were hanging on to is now dwindling.

“Personally, I have been staying at my brother’s house after sending my family upcountry since I could not afford rent,” he said recently.

He said a majority of union members are homeless and depressed with the risk of permanent job loss due to the restrictions that have been in place for six months now.

The union now wants the government to put the well-being of its citizens at the forefront by securing livelihoods as has happened in other African countries.

They argue their industry is no different from travel where trains, buses and planes have resumed operations with strict adherence to health guidelines.

A 2017 PWC report on gambling industry says Kenya is among the top three gambling markets in Africa alongside South Africa and Nigeria.

The Kenyan gambling industry has rapidly become a multi-million shilling business featuring lotteries, sports betting and prize competitions.

Over the recent past, the government heightened frenzy to control the industry through tax measures, creating a hostile environment for operators.

Just two months before the casino ban took effect, the Kenya Revenue Authority (KRA) threatened to deactivate pay bill numbers of gaming companies who had refused to submit revenues collected from the 20 percent excise tax deducted from stakes placed by punters.

The taxman in January also said it would suspend online operations of the non-compliant managers of betting firms, in a move targeted at increasing tax collection in the financial year ending June 30.

The Finance Act 2019 introduced excise tax on stakes placed on bookmakers by punters in a new directive which also required gaming companies to display the same deductions on betting slips.

Prior to this, the KRA had in July 2019 imposed a 20 percent withholding tax on all winnings on compliant betting firms.

All betting firms seeking to renew their licences and new entrants also have to adhere to the new regulations by the taxman.

This has been burdening betting companies as there already exists a 15 percent betting tax and 30 percent corporation tax.

SportPesa, which grew rapidly in Kenya to dominate online betting, shut operations, following a prolonged tax standoff with the KRA.