Nearly two years after customers first discovered that delivery had ceased due to a strike at the popular eatery Saigon Grill, 36 workers have been awarded a $4.6 million settlement. Though probably the most high-profile action to date, the settlement isn’t the first win for local restaurant employees who complained of illegal practices, and labor advocates say nearby eateries are already changing their treatment of workers.
The Saigon Grill lawsuit was filed in March 2007 against owners Simon and Michelle Nget on behalf of deliverymen from the restaurant’s locations at Amsterdam Avenue and 90th Street, and University Place. The workers sought back wages, as well as compensation for bikes and fines they claimed were levied over several years. An Oct. 20 decision from the United States District Court in Manhattan dismissed the credibility of the Ngets’ testimony.
“This is kind of like a battle that’s been fought for almost two years,” said Josephine Lee, an organizer with the group Justice Will Be Served, which has assisted the workers since the initial strike.
Lee, who works regularly with food service workers, says conditions on the Upper West Side have improved as a result of the Saigon Grill drama, with higher tips from concerned customers and owners who want to stay on the right side of the law.
“The neighborhood knows,” Lee said. “People are more aware of some of these problems.”
In the meantime, delivery workers at other restaurants have followed suit—literally. In May 2008, workers who took legal action against management at the Chinese-Cuban chain Flor de Mayo received an undisclosed settlement from owners. And a lawsuit filed in April 2007 by delivery and kitchen workers against Ollie’s Chinese restaurants is still in a pre-trial phase.
Molly Biklen, one of the plaintiff’s lawyers in the Ollie’s case, said the Saigon Grill decision was “very encouraging. It’s a large decision that really shows that restaurants can’t get away with this, or it will come back to haunt them later.”
The press-shy Ngets haven’t made many public comments about the case, but in the past they have handed out letters to clientele asserting their innocence and saying they were being extorted. The restaurant is still dishing out Vietnamese specialties and delivery has resumed. Justice Will Be Served reports that the restaurant has reinstated some, but not all, of the deliverymen.
A woman answering the phone at the office of the Ngets’ lawyer, S. Michael Weisberg, said Weisberg had no comment at the present time.
But Brian Baxter, who blogged on the trial’s opening day for the publication American Lawyer, quoted Weisberg as saying that a large settlement would bankrupt his clients.
Buzz about the delivery dispute has rippled throughout the neighborhood, and even made an appearance on three Facebook groups, including one with the title “Saigon Grill is tasty, but slave labor cotton was soft.”
David Hardisty, a graduate student studying psychology at Columbia University, found out about the boycott from friends at school. He said his department used to order in from Saigon Grill, but now orders from Saga Grill, a Vietnamese restaurant on 123rd Street and Amsterdam Avenue.
Mia Mazer, a Harlem resident, was in her junior year at LaGuardia High School when she first passed the pickets. She said she no longer eats at Saigon Grill.
“I was horrified,” she said. “With restaurants in New York City, we always want the cheapest food. We don’t take into consideration how that might affect these workers.”
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