Semhar Tesfagiorgis and Selina Miebaka learnt first hand how far an elite London casino will go to protect its wealthiest clients.
Four months before UK casinos were forced to close for lockdown in March 2020, the pair of croupiers were told they could not serve a player on the gaming floor of exclusive London club Aspinalls because they were black.
The “million-pound customer” only wanted female dealers “with fair skin”, according to witness statements provided to an employment tribunal. The casino’s management kept Tesfagiorgis and Miebaka away from him with no questions asked at the time.
It was the latest in a string of incidents that Tesfagiorgis said she feared could become more frequent as high-end casinos, struggling after months of closure during the pandemic, pander to the whims of high-rolling clients.
But, as one of the few black croupiers in London’s top casinos and the only one to have taken legal action against what several have described as a culture of racism, Tesfagiorgis said she hoped that her case would “make it easier” for others to speak out.
“[Racism] is done in a real open and blatant fashion,” she said, adding: “If I went away quietly, it would have just continued.”
Her proceedings against Aspinalls, owned by the Australian resort company Crown since 2011, ended in January, costing Tesfagiorgis £100,000. Her efforts did result in a partial victory: the judge ruled in November that the 2019 incident was direct racial discrimination and Crown later paid Tesfagiorgis £20,000 in damages.
Aspinalls is considered one of four elite gambling clubs in London’s Mayfair district. The others are Crockfords, The Clermont and Les Ambassadeurs. Until it closed in 2020, the Ritz was also part of the group.
Between them they make up an important part of the UK’s casino industry, which in 2020 made £1.1bn in sales after winnings were paid out. They rival each other to attract wealthy punters who can play for as much as £250,000 a hand, sometimes losing millions to the casino in a night.
Witness statements submitted to Tesfagiorgis’ tribunal alleged regular abuse of dealers at Aspinalls, while more than 15 former croupiers and pit bosses — who oversee the gaming tables — who had worked at one or more of the Mayfair casinos and spoke to the Financial Times have said discrimination, in particular towards women and non-white employees, seemed common.
Three former croupiers said that objects such as ashtrays, glasses and chairs had been thrown at them by patrons when they were “rattled”. Other ex-dealers from Aspinalls, Crockfords and the Clermont said that racist slurs had seemed routine.
Fiona Esoko, a former Aspinalls croupier, said a high-spending customer, who sometimes tipped in the region of £80,000 a visit, had threatened her with rape if she did not spin his numbers. The man was not barred but wrote an apology in red ink on a scrap of paper, she added.
“Pretty early on you realise you have to keep your mouth shut. Customers can be difficult and the money comes first,” Esoko said.
Michael Churchman, a former pit supervisor at the Ritz and another Mayfair club, said dealers “could be called anything”. At the Ritz, he said that comments to dealers — such as one who was told: “I hope your family burn in hell” — were not unusual, and that some punters found it “acceptable that if a dealer with quite large breasts was clearing chips away they could touch them”.
Another former dealer who had worked at Aspinalls and Crockfords and asked not to be named said that on a separate occasion at Aspinalls a client called a dealer the N-word and while the dealer was taken away and hidden “out of sight”, the punter was “allowed back in” the club.
Aspinalls said that it “takes the issue of discrimination extremely seriously and that we are committed to a workplace free of discrimination and harassment and a safe environment for our guests”.
Most of the dealers the FT spoke to had been made redundant during the Covid closures. Some current staff said they could not speak to journalists due to confidentiality clauses in their contracts and fear of losing their jobs.
Those closures were a near-death experience for some of these gambling houses, which compete with Monaco, Macau and Las Vegas for the biggest “whales”.
A current employee at one Mayfair club said the casino was “dead” and that tips were a quarter of what they were pre-pandemic. Former croupiers said they feared tough competition for clients would push casino managers to be more acquiescent to dubious requests from patrons, although some said that since Tesfagiorgis’ case, it appeared that more action had been taken against customers who abused staff.
“At the end of the day these guys are worth so much money and these managers don’t want to say ‘no’ to them because they are scared of losing their jobs,” one former dealer said.
“If the casino upset that person they would go to another casino and give them their money,” said Snezana Jaksic, a former Aspinalls croupier.
Typically, wealthy patrons, many from Asia and the Middle East, are courted by clubs who pay for them to stay in luxurious hotels and for their families to have boxes at sports events while they gamble.
“[Managers] want the customer to be happy. That is their top consideration,” Samantha Beebee, a former dealer who worked at Aspinalls and another Mayfair casino, said. “You couldn’t go to McDonald’s or Marks and Spencer and say I don’t want to be served by a black person, I want a white person. You wouldn’t get away with it.”
Tesfagiorgis put 26 claims to the tribunal. Nine related to alleged direct race discrimination. The tribunal upheld only one of the claims made as too much time had elapsed since many of the incidents for the tribunal to rule on them or the evidence was limited, the judge said. However, she added “patron behaviour in all cases was completely wrong and discriminatory” and the casino’s training to deal with such episodes was “inadequate”.
Aspinalls said it accepted the incident “should not have occurred”.
“We are pleased that the tribunal agreed that our senior managers did all they could to investigate and deal with the incident once it was brought to their attention,” it added.
UK casino operators say they are losing their competitive edge due to high taxes and restrictions that prevent customers gambling on credit.
In another blow to the industry, a government paper reviewing the UK’s gambling laws and likely to make them stricter is due to be published in the coming weeks
One Mayfair club executive said that taxes on high-end casinos were about 50 per cent, making the business “almost a joint venture” with the government.
The Genting Group, the owner of Crockfords, did not respond to requests for comment. The Ritz’s former owners could not be reached for comment. The Clermont, which was bought by Mayfair Casino Ltd in 2018, and Les Ambassadeurs both declined to comment.
Since the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 more people have come forward to challenge racism at work but many cannot afford to take cases to court, Shazia Khan, a partner at law firm Cole Khan, which represented Tesfagiorgis, said. Tesfagiorgis said she had endured “two years of trauma” and “begged, borrowed and almost stole” to fund her case.