Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Saigon Grill in New York City Closes for Good




Workers Picket Saigon Grill


For years, Saigon Grill on Amsterdam Avenue at 90th Street was an Upper West Side fixture. Its spring rolls and Vietnamese soups were staples of quick dinners, celebratory lunches and takeout meals. Its deliveries were prompt, its waiters happy to take care of small children.

Yet there, on Friday, were some of the restaurant’s former regulars and a dozen of the workers who used to serve them, throwing a sort of grand-closing party outside Saigon Grill in the snow.

Balloons festooned a loudspeaker and a sidewalk pay phone.

“When sweatshops close, workers win!” pickets chanted, claiming victory for the pro-labor forces of the famously liberal Upper West Side.

“Celebrate!” read a neon sign hanging from a former deliveryman’s neck. “Sweatshop closed.”

It was a milestone in the history of the pan-Asian restaurant, where workers began picketing in the spring of 2007, saying, among other complaints, that the original owners, Simon and Michelle Nget, paid them less than the minimum wage — under $2 an hour in some cases.

The next year, a federal judge awarded 36 workers $4.6 million in back pay and damages, and the Ngets were charged with over 400 counts of violating labor laws. A settlement reduced the award to $3 million, of which the Ngets paid $1.5 million, according to the office of Assemblywoman Linda B. Rosenthal, a Democrat of the Upper West Side.

New owners, Bei Lin and Ling Qiao, took over the restaurant in 2010, promising to do better and pay the remaining $1.5 million.

But picketing was renewed, prompted by accusations that the owners intimidated, harassed and discriminated against workers. And of the promised $1.5 million, only $500,000 has been paid, according to Ms. Rosenthal’s office.

The restaurant had been shut more than once in recent months for health violations, including having mice, cockroaches and flies on the premises.

But it appears to have been closed for good since Feb. 26, a few weeks after a judge ordered the owners to pay $1 million still owed the workers.

“Restaurant official closed,” a note on the door read on Friday. “We’re sorry for inconvenience with you.”

It was unclear why the restaurant had been shuttered. A voice mail message left with the restaurant was not returned.

“Good riddance,” said Ms. Rosenthal, who has worked with a group representing the workers, the Justice Will Be Served campaign.

“It also sends a message to other restaurants that you can’t mistreat your workers. It just won’t fly on the Upper West Side.”

Organizers say the years of picketing outside Saigon Grill have inspired delivery people and other workers at other Asian restaurants, nail salons and pizza parlors around the city to fight unfair labor practices.

Like other local residents in attendance on Friday, Ms. Rosenthal said she ate at Saigon Grill often in the years before the Ngets’ violations came to light. She said that after the news spread, she did not know anyone who patronized the restaurant.
Saigon Grill’s labor battles became notorious enough that several passers-by said they had eventually given up their favorite spring rolls and noodles to support the workers.

“It turned me off,” Lori Countey, who lives six blocks away, said. “I felt wrong about going in there.”

Still, the restaurant remained busy on many nights. And there were signs that all the commotion, instead of winning the hearts and minds of progressive neighbors, had frayed some local nerves.

The rally on Friday was twice interrupted by angry residents.

“I’m a liberal, but I found this offensive,” said Judy Bardack, 70, who had watched the pickets come and go for years, though she had never eaten at the restaurant.

“This was not the worst abuse in the world, and they managed to hound them out of business. I mean, the balloons!”

Shakir Farsakh, 50, another neighbor, said he had decided not to eat at Saigon Grill after hearing about the protests, but broke his self-imposed rule a few times.
“We went once in a while after that, feeling a little guilty,” he said. After all, the restaurant was convenient and its food was good. “But,” he said, “we still weren’t happy about it.”

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