Jan 5, 2011

The New York Times City Room Reports on the Saigon Grill Campaign

January 5, 2011, 3:26 pm

New Owners, and New Labor Complaints
Plus ca change: workers protesting outside the Saigon Grill on Amsterdam Avenue in March 2007.Ruth Fremson/The New York Times Plus ├ža change: workers protesting outside the Saigon Grill on Amsterdam Avenue in March 2007.

If some restaurants are cursed with bad locations, maybe others are cursed with bad labor relations. Two years after a federal judge awarded $4.6 million to  delivery workers at the Saigon Grill, a Manhattan noodle house, to compensate for their severe exploitation, the restaurant’s new owners face a fresh round of claims of worker discrimination and intimidation.
A restaurant workers’ union filed a complaint with federal authorities last month accusing the new owners of harassing and firing workers who protested age discrimination and expressed support for joining a union. Bei Lin and Qiao Lin, brothers who now own the restaurant , threatened the employees, manipulated work schedules to decrease their tips, and fired many who objected, according to  the  complaint filed with the National Labor Relations Board by the 318 Restaurant Workers Union.
Since November, former employees and workers’ advocates have been protesting five days a week outside the Saigon Grill at 620 Amsterdam Avenue at 90th Street. They have set up a Web site urging neighbors to boycott the  restaurant, taking up a tactic used during the last round of the labor fight.
The Saigon Grill, a neighborhood haunt popular for its spring rolls and coconut soup, has been at various locations on the Upper West Side since 1996. It has had high Zagat ratings for food, as high as 23 out of a possible 30.
But the previous owners, Simon and Michelle Nget, paid delivery workers less than $2 an hour, and systematically cheated the staff out of tips and wages, a federal judge found in 2008. When the extent of the labor violations became clear, many Upper West Siders, a group known for its deeply liberal politics, were left uneasy at the scale of mistreatment in their midst.
After a long battle, the workers won the fight. In addition to the $4.6 million award, the attorney general’s office handed down a 400-count criminal indictment against the Ngets.
Mr. Nget pleaded guilty in 2009 to taking illegal kickbacks from workers and creating fake business records, among other counts, and will be sentenced to 90 days in jail and five years’ probation. Mrs. Nget’s case is still pending.
But now, some workers claim that conditions under the new management, which took over in October, threaten those hard-earned victories. Jerry Wang was one of several waiters fired in October after defending workers that he said Bei Lin planned to fire because they were too old.
“He discriminated and turned against the people who speak up,” Mr. Wang said. “It’s really an injustice.”
Mr. Wang is one of about 20 employees, including about 10 delivery workers still employed there, who have signed on to the complaint.
The Lins’ lawyer, Eric Su, denied all the allegations. He said the union was trying to pressure the  owners to hire its members and run the business as union leaders saw fit.  “It’s a bullying act,” Mr. Su said, adding that the protests had dramatically hurt the restaurant’s business.
A former branch of the Saigon Grill in the West Village, now called Saigon Market, is under different ownership.
Josephine Lee, a workers’ rights advocate who has been helping the employees, said the fight at the Saigon Grill carried special resonance.
“More workers came out because they saw how other workers were fighting for their rights,” said Ms. Lee, an organizer with Justice Will Be Served, an advocacy group for low-wage workers. “Now, with this boss coming in, he’s basically saying, ‘I’m above the law.’ ”
“We can’t let this happen here,” she said.

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