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With the fight to keep web shops from closing headed to the Supreme Court today, the jobs of hundreds of Bahamians are hanging in the balance.
It comes at a time when the unemployment climate remains challenged.
In the face of an overwhelming no vote in Monday's referendum on gambling, Prime Minister Perry Christie last night ordered all web shop gaming to stop immediately.
Ahead of his announcement yesterday, web shop operations across New Providence were open and reported "normal activity".
The majority of workers in the web shops The Nassau Guardian visited, predominantly in eastern and southeastern New Providence, were unwilling to speak.
The few who did said business was normal and they at the time had no major concerns of being shut down anytime soon.
As Christie met with his Cabinet to discuss the outcome of the referendum and the road ahead, numerous customers were in the various web shops gambling.
A manager of Asue Draw on East Street said she had not been given any special instructions and she and her staff reported to work.
Asked whether she was concerned about authorities closing down her place of employment, she responded, "I'm not too concerned. As you can see things are normal and there is normal activity."
But hours later, Christie released his directive.
An Island Games security guard, subcontracted under I.C.S. Security Concepts, said earlier in the day he thinks the web shops should be given a grace period to allow employees to find alternative employment before being closed down.
However, he said his job was not directly under threat as he could be transferred to another establishment.
"I came to work this morning and while there is not as many customers here as usual, people are still playing and business is still reasonable," said the guard.
The prime minister warned last night that all violators of the directive to end web shop gambling would be prosecuted.
While there was no immediate statement from police last night, Assistant Commissioner Hulan Hanna is on record as saying police are prepared to begin shutting down those businesses once the directive was given.
Although he did not reveal what action the police force would take if the referendum fails, Commissioner of Police Ellison Greenslade said a plan was being developed whether the gaming referendum passed or not.
"We are listening and watching with interest and we are going to be guided in a proper way," he said earlier this month.
"But we are very alert as a team as to what is happening and what is being discussed and we're listening to our people very, very closely."
On the question of whether web shops should be regulated and taxed, 30,767 voters voted yes while 48,012 voted no.
According to unofficial results, which were released yesterday, 45 percent of registered voters voted.
The Guardian also interviewed several Bahamians, who abstained from voting in Monday's referendum. Their reasons ranged from a lack of interest to the belief that the referendum process was flawed.
Kevera 'Yoda' Turnquest, 21, a student who returned home from college in the United States, said he was disappointed that neither campaigns provided empirical evidence to support the claims, adding that the government also failed to fill in those details.
"I was hoping Bahamians were smart enough to realize this and it seems a lot of people just went out there [Vote Yes rallies] because it was free entertainment," he said.
"It was not an important matter to me, but Bahamians should have the due diligence to see stupidity when it strikes. The commercials were trying to push you in one direction, but where was the education process?"
James Hanna, 25, a certified public accountant, agreed that the government did not fulfill its promise of an education campaign and said, "I didn't feel like I should enable the government to do [nonsense]".
"They made the process confusing and didn't make sense to me," said Hanna, who noted he would have voted no to web shops and yes to a national lottery.
"If you're giving people options you should tell them everything about the options they have. We should not go into [anything] blind. We should have gathered all of the information and I didn't have enough information to get involved in the process."
There are seven to eight major web shop operators in The Bahamas, who have the "capacity to meet any conditions for licensing" if the gambling referendum is successful, according to Prime Minister Perry Christie.
"When I started off, I actually made the mistake about saying there are four web shop operators, who are major web shop operators," said Christie on Wednesday.
"Since this process began, I have seen seven or eight of them now and all of them making representations that they have the capacity to meet any conditions for licensing -- that they have store fronts; that they have the money; that they have this and they have that.
"So it is more than a limited amount of people who will make applications for licenses in this country."
Web shop owners who are eligible may qualify for licenses to operate, said Christie when asked if the government would expand its consideration beyond the four or five more prominent operators.
"It looks like there are more than four or five majors now and it is a...misrepresentation to believe there are only four," he said.
In order to qualify for a web shop license, applicants would have to meet stringent criteria, including possessing the necessary experience, integrity and expertise, Christie previously said in the House of Assembly.
He said applicants must also possess the necessary financial resources, have organizational capacity and internal controls needed to operate in an efficient, responsible and transparent manner.
His statement in November that not all current owners of numbers houses would get licenses from the government if Bahamians vote to make web shops legal, prompted criticism from the opposition.
The Free National Movement suggested the prime minister had already handpicked the web shops that would be given licenses.
However, Christie has responded that the government would consider approving new entrants into the industry, but only after his administration figures out how many participants the market could sustain.
Although he has not indicated just how many web shops could operate legally and be properly policed, Christie has said the government would place a cap on the industry, similar to the rules placed on casino gaming.
If web shop operators were to be regularized, it is contemplated that a cash bond of not less than $1 million would be paid by each licensee and annual tax of up to 15 percent on the gross sums wagered.
Christie has claimed that using conservative estimates, this could yield not less than $15 million to $20 million annually to the Public Treasury.
As the country comes to grips with Monday's referendum result, opinions are mixed on whether the closing of web shops will have a major and lasting impact on the economy.
The "Vote Yes" campaign, strongly led by web shop owners and their employees, ran a platform emphasizing high employment numbers in the domestic gambling industry. Although the figure has never been unequivocally proven, it's speculated that some 3,000 people rely on web shops to make ends meet.
Zhivargo Laing, the former minister of state for finance, said there would indeed be a negative impact on the economy in the short term.
"But the monies they were earning remains in the economy," he argued. "That money will just be spent in different places. Even if the money isn't spent, the net result will be nil, because it was a domestic economic activity. The GDP (gross domestic product) shouldn't suffer."
Laing told Guardian Business that the displacement of funds could actually create new economic opportunities. Rather than spending money on gambling, Bahamians could allocate resources to other areas.
Franklyn Wilson, the chairman of Sunshine Holdings Limited, said the loss of employment would have a more substantial impact.
He questioned whether unemployed Bahamians would have realistic avenues for new jobs in this particular macroeconomic environment.
"So I don't know how useful it is to predict beyond the short run," he said. "There are so many forces at work here. But certainly, the prospects of those unemployed are not very promising."
A wild card in the whole matter, he added, is whether law suits by web cafes are successful in their battle to stay open. The government would be under pressure to close the web shops right away. However, he said the issue may be complicated by legal arguments.
Richard Coulson, a well-known financial consultant, said he is equally mystified on the long-term economic impact.
He argued that employment numbers for web shops are not altogether clear.
"It's just one big question mark," he said.
He agreed with Laing, in the sense that it could open up other possibilities to create jobs and revenue, such as the development of a renewable energy sector.
On Monday, Bahamians strongly rejected both questions on the gambling referendum, saying no to the regulation of web shop gaming and the establishment of a national lottery. The government has committed to "enforcing the law" and living up to its pledge to shut down the web shops.
The Bahamas already suffers from double-digit unemployment.
Two consultants to web shops have different opinions on who should be allowed to gamble in web shops and casinos in a regulated environment.
While insisting that he is against discrimination, Paul Major said yesterday Bahamians should not be allowed to take part in Internet gaming at local casinos.
However, Major said Bahamians should be able to wager on blackjack or other traditional games in casinos.
He also said foreigners should not be allowed to gamble in web shops.
Major said he is concerned about the amount of money that could leave the country as a result of Bahamians playing in foreign-owned casinos. He said the profits would be repatriated.
But Philip Galanis said despite the concern regarding foreign reserves, the status quo should not be allowed to remain.
"I understand the points that Paul Major is making in respect to the foreign reserves and it's certainly one that should be taken into account," said Galanis in an interview with The Nassau Guardian.
"I believe all forms of discrimination from gaming in The Bahamas should end and that Bahamians should be allowed to gamble in casinos if they wish.
"Full stop. I do not believe that this will create a problem for our foreign reserves because I do not believe that a lot of Bahamians will take advantage of this opportunity."
In a separate interview, Major also said if casinos offer the same brand of gaming as web shops, it would unfairly impact web shops.
"They have unlimited capital and can create plush environments for gamblers," he said.
"I think they need to ring fence local gaming where Bahamians play and foreigners don't play, and I think they need to ring fence casinos where foreigners play and Bahamians don't."
The government is considering lifting the ban on Bahamians gambling in local casinos, The Nassau Guardian understands.
This is being considered as part of the reform of the gaming industry. The proposed gaming bill would allow local casino operators to facilitate online and mobile gambling.
But the government is facing some opposition from some web shop bosses who reportedly want a monopoly on Bahamians gambling in their establishments.
Major said as much as he hates to advocate for forms of discrimination, in this case it is necessary.
"We have to protect the foreign reserves and we have to protect these people's businesses.
"I think it's unfair that they built these businesses from their bootstraps and invested millions and are now faced with this," he said.
"The casinos probably won't make any additional hires either.
"I want to make it clear, I said I believe Bahamians should go and play in casinos in moderation...I don't think the government should tell me I can't play blackjack or Russian roulette and foreigners can. We look backward."
Minister with responsibility for gaming Obie Wilchcombe has said he is pushing to have web shops regulated by July 1.
However, Minister of State of Legal Services Damian Gomez said on Friday the July 1 date is unrealistic. He said December 31, is a more realistic date.
The government could get between $60 million and $70 million a year in web shop taxes if it is applied at a rate of 15 percent on the sector's gross profits and customer winning, Major said previously.
Attorney General Allyson-Maynard Gibson said yesterday her office will seek to have lifted an injunction secured by a group of web shop owners last month that prevents them from being shut down.
Senior Justice Jon Isaacs granted the injunction on February 30, two days after a gambling referendum failed.
Maynard-Gibson said the matter may be heard in mid-March.
The government filed an appearance in connection with that injunction earlier this month. The documents were filed on February 15.
"The judge indicated that he is prepared to hear it," the attorney general told reporters outside Cabinet.
"It will be the chief justice, I have been advised, and also once all counsel is ready."
Asked how long before this matter would reach some resolution, the attorney general said although a hearing should commence in mid-March, "who knows where it goes from there".
Attorneys Alfred Sears and Jeffery Lloyd represent Paradise Games. Wayne Munroe represents Island Game, Island Luck, FML Group of Companies, Asue Draw, Whatfall and Chances.
Maynard-Gibson said the prosecution must be able to prove that something illegal is happening in order for those web shops to be closed.
"The matter will be to lift the injunction and I want to say that we don't want to close any lawful business in The Bahamas," she said. "That is not the objective."
When asked whether web shops in The Bahamas were lawful businesses, Maynard-Gibson said if the web shops are strictly offering web services, "that is fine, but anything else, gaming is obviously illegal".
Sears and Munroe filed documents in the Supreme Court in an effort to permanently prevent the government from shutting down their clients' operations.
Even prior to the gambling referendum, web shop raids were scarce. More notably, in September 2011, a magistrate confiscated just under $1 million, which police seized during a raid on an FML Group of Companies web shop two years prior.
Maynard-Gibson said she expects FML Group of Companies CEO Craig Flowers' appeal to soon be heard in relation to that matter. She could not recall the date for that matter.
Commissioner of Police Ellison Greenslade said yesterday the police will take action against web shops.
Nearly a year after a gambling referendum failed, web shops continue to operate in the open.
"I will determine the time in which I want to move," said Greenslade, who was a guest on 'Hard Copy' on Peace 107.5 with host Steve McKinney.
"We have moved before and will move again. That is a fact."
At one point police did go into several web shops, but only one was shut down due to a breach of the Business License Act.
However, officers did not arrest anyone for illegal gaming activity, nor did they seize any of the establishments' assets.
Greenslade said yesterday more action is coming. However, he warned that police are being very careful.
"I don't want us to skew the fact," he said.
"We've got some serious issues that we contend with every day that we continue to work with...But we have to be responsible in discharging our duties."
When asked about the issue again later in the show, Greenslade warned gamblers.
"If you're doing something that is illegal, stop today," he said. "...Cease and desist. Do not be found in a place where you shouldn't be. And be very careful what you ask for. I'm going to leave it there."
Greenslade has made at least three similar public appeals in the past year.
Following the January 2013 referendum, both the police and government had pledged to take action against web shops.
Assistant Commissioner Leon Bethell said last year that police must have evidence of illegal activities within those establishments before they can shut them down.
Making a similar point, Greenslade said yesterday that policing web shops has become much harder than it was in past years.
A case is pending in the Supreme Court to determine whether web shops can legally engage in gaming activities.
Prime Minister Perry Christie recently indicated that he regretted the decision to take the gambling issue to a referendum.
When asked by The Nassau Guardian last Friday if he regrets not 'having a horse in the race', Christie said: "I ought to have moved immediately to regulate the industry without going to a referendum and to articulate to the people of the country that we were going to have enormous problems in trying to have an environment where it is not regulated."
Christie hinted that the government might still regulate web shops.
The biggest loser in a yes vote to "support the regulation and taxation of web shop gaming" will be the Bahamian people. It should be noted that while that is the language of the proposed referendum question, the issue is really whether to legalize what is currently a criminal enterprise.
Web shops may be shut down for as long as three months if the January 28 gambling referendum passes, to give the government time to properly regulate the sector, Minister of Tourism Obie Wilchcombe said. Wilchcombe, who has ministerial oversight for gaming, said the government would need between 30 and 90 days to process and approve web shop licenses, among other things.
Members of the Save Our Bahamas Committee yesterday called the Vote Yes Committee's promise of a public share offering if web shop gaming is legalized a "shameless ploy designed to buy votes".