Asian casino giant faces legal battle in Nepal

A view of Tiger Palace Casino Resort in Bhairahawa, Nepal.
PHOTO: The Kathmandu Post/Asia News Network

Boutique Asian casino operator and developer, Silver Heritage Group (SVH), is embroiled in a legal battle in Nepal after it removed its local partner, who was overseeing implementation of a casino project in Bhairahawa.

The ongoing legal dispute is expected to affect SVH's second casino project at Dhulabari in the far eastern district of Jhapa, where the company has purchased land worth Rs1 billion (S$20.15 million) to build a five-star casino property to cater to the gaming population of Kolkata, Sikkim and other key Indian cities.

SVH, a company based in Hong Kong and listed on the Australian stock market, made its debut in Nepal by establishing Tiger Palace 1 casino resort in Bhairahawa. The resort-cum-casino, built at a cost of Rs5.2 billion (S$104.7 million), formally came into operation on March 17.

The property located near the birthplace of the Buddha in Lumbini and touted as the biggest casino resort in South Asia is planning to draw majority of its clients from heavily populated Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.

The project had faced several hurdles before it launched its operation due to delay in regulatory approvals and funding crunch. Now, the company is facing legal problems.

The fresh controversy surfaced after Silver Heritage Limited Management Service, Kathmandu, a holding of SVH, on February 22, terminated its consultancy agreement with one of its Nepali partners, Rajendra Bajgain, who had accused the company of illegally hiring foreign workers.

Silver Heritage said, "This unauthorised disclosure, in addition to various other breaches of the local partner's consultancy agreement, has led to sanctions being imposed by the company [on Bajgain], including, but not limited to, the potential termination of his consultancy agreement."

Subsequently, Bajgain moved the Kathmandu District Court seeking annulment of the decision. On March 5, the court ordered the company's director Mike Bolsover not to terminate its consultancy agreement with Bajgain. The company has since moved the Patan High Court to vacate the order issued by the district court.

Bajgain had claimed that 22 foreign staffers at Tiger Palace were working without work permits. Of them, 17 have left the country after the issue of illegal hiring came to the surface.

Nepali immigration officials confirmed the departure of 17 staff. However, they could not ascertain whether they were working illegally even after conducting an investigation.

The Department of Immigration had launched an investigation after Bajgain lodged a complaint about illegal deployment of foreign staff. During the investigation, a three-member panel led by Raju Prasad Poudel, under-secretary of the department, conducted an on-site inspection of the resort in Bhairahawa and enquired five top foreign officials working in the company. The panel submitted a report to the department last week.

"The government is yet to act on the issue as it is complicated," said an immigration official.

The top five officials working in the resort have been granted "gratis visa", which is granted to diplomats and business officials. Gratis visa is also issued to representatives and family members of a company that has invested more than Rs100 million in Nepal. Those who hold this visa can stay in Nepal for up to a year.

"SVH has sent five representatives to Nepal. It could not be ascertained whether they are staff members who draw salaries here," the immigration official said.

But complaints have been lodged stating these representatives are working in Nepal but their salaries are deposited in Hong Kong. "If this is true, it's illegal," said the official.

Silver Heritage Managing Director and CEO Mike Bolsover and Chairman David Green have denied engagement of Nepal-based company in illegal activities, according to Inside Asian Gaming report published recently.

"We are confident that we will find a solution to work with the Nepal government," they were quoted as saying.

A top-level foreign official working in a casino in Nepal said that the process of getting work permit in Nepal is very complicated.

"When I first came to Nepal, I was granted a tourist visa. The process to obtain work permit takes almost three months. So, was I working illegally during the three-month period?" he questioned.

Krishna Sapkota, an official of the Immigration Department, said the issue was complicated. "These types of problems cannot be resolved unless immigration rules are amended," Sapkota added.

Foreigners, who accept placements in Nepal-based companies, are issued "tourist visa" for initial 150 days. They can then apply for work permits within that period. "We have proposed that foreigners be allowed to process their work permit from abroad or their home countries prior to arriving in Nepal, so that they can start working here from the day they land in the country. This is a practice followed by most of the countries," said Sapkota.

Silver Heritage claims to have generated more than 1,000 jobs in Nepal till date, of which 95 per cent are held by Nepalis. Silver Heritage also operates The Millionaire's Club & Casino housed at Hotel Shangri La, Kathmandu.