Not surprisingly, Wu was fired. (Chen declined to comment.) At the time, it seemed like little more than an everyday boss-versus-deliveryman dispute. Then Wu found his way to the Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association, an activist organization in Chinatown, which is part of a campaign fighting for better labor conditions known as Justice Will Be Served. Wu recruited his co-workers, some of whom had also been fired, to join him. The organizers set them up with an attorney, and last August, Wu and nine other deliverymen filed a lawsuit against Our Place, charging that the restaurant paid most of them just $1.75 an hour—an allegation the restaurant’s owners have denied in court papers. (State law requires restaurants to pay deliverymen at least $4.85 an hour.)
News of Wu’s standing up to the “big boss” spread quickly through the deliveryman community, especially the contingent that comes from the Fujian province in southeast China. Over the past 25 or so years, several hundred thousand people have immigrated to New York City from Fujian. Most grew up in a handful of rural counties outside Fuzhou City, in villages that are now nearly devoid of young people. Some, like Justin, left when they were just out of school; others held low-wage jobs—farmer, taxi driver, truck driver, carpenter—before leaving China. Once they get to New York, they connect with friends or relatives and find jobs that don’t require any English skills, often as restaurant deliverymen.
Although some Chinese deliverymen are working legally, many are undocumented. But employers are required by law to pay minimum wage and overtime to all of their workers, regardless of legal status. And you don’t need a green card to file a lawsuit against your employer. (There is little risk of deportation, as the courts don’t require plaintiffs to reveal their immigration status.) After Wu and his co-workers sued Our Place, it wasn’t long before the deliverymen at Saigon Grill, Ollie’s, and Republic joined in. In late July, deliverymen at yet another restaurant—the recently shuttered Rosie & Ting Noodles & Grille in the East Village—sued their employer as well, making this a five-restaurant revolt.
The battle over Saigon Grill has become the focal point of the deliverymen’s energies because, in the words of one organizer, “it’s like cutting off the head.” Many of the deliverymen from other restaurants, including Wu and Justin, have also worked at Saigon Grill, and of the restaurants being sued, the deliverymen say Saigon Grill was the worst. “If we win this case, every restaurant is going to change,” says Yu Guan Ke, 36, who worked at Saigon Grill for ten years. “If we lose or give up, every restaurant will have this situation.”
On a recent Saturday afternoon, seventeen deliverymen picketed outside Saigon Grill on University Place, in Greenwich Village, shouting so loudly they could be heard a block away: “Boycott!” “Saigon Grill!” “Boycott!” “Saigon Grill!” Around their necks, they wore homemade signs with Magic Marker slogans: GRILL THE OWNERS. DEMAND FAIR WAGES. Wu was in the crowd, as were Justin and four of his co-workers from Ollie’s. “We go to the pickets all the time to get our sweat-and-blood money back from the owner,” says Justin.
For the past four months, the men have been protesting at the Vietnamese restaurant’s two locations—here and on the Upper West Side—ten times a week. (There are actually three Saigon Grills, but the one on the Upper East Side is closed for renovations.) Many of the protesters were fired from Saigon Grill in March, when the owner, Simon Nget, shut down his entire delivery operation after the men tried to form a union. On this afternoon, Nget’s nephew stood next to the front door with a video camera trained on the protesters. Nget himself used to come out and distribute flyers telling his side of this story, but these days he stays inside; when the deliverymen protest at the Upper West Side restaurant, he uses the back entrance to avoid their jeers.
Before the conflict began, Saigon Grill had an enormous delivery business. The restaurant on Amsterdam Avenue and 90th Street employed 22 deliverymen, an unusually large number—and it was famous for the quick legs of its deliverymen; Zagat’s 2006 review called its delivery service “lightning fast.” This was especially remarkable considering the size of Saigon Grill’s delivery zone: Its menu promised delivery up to 40 blocks or more. Deliverymen at the Upper West Side location recount dropping off orders from midtown to northern Harlem. Some deliveries were so far away the round-trip could take close to an hour.
The lawsuit—and the stories the deliverymen tell—reveals the cost of keeping such an operation running. According to the deliverymen, they had to report to work on their day off anytime it rained or was especially cold—lucrative conditions for food delivery. “There’s a policy: If it’s 25 degrees or less, everyone has to go to work or they’re fired,” Wu says. They say they also had to buy and repair their own bikes and were forced to pay fines ranging from $20 to $200 for transgressions like slamming a door or being late with a delivery. The deliverymen also charge that their wages were, in effect, diminished because they sometimes had to pay to eat, violating standard industry practice. “They never cooked enough food for us,” says Yu Guan Ke, the lead plaintiff in the case. Once the food provided was gone, the deliverymen had to order from the menu—and unlike the kitchen staff and the waiters, they had to pay for the food themselves. The deliverymen say they had little choice but to spend their tip money on dinner, since speeding around on a bike for hours when you’re hungry is close to impossible.
Worse are the stories about the way the restaurant handled the two great dangers of the deliveryman’s job: injuries and robberies. In both cases, the deliverymen say, they were often forced to reimburse the restaurant’s owner if they were hurt or mugged. Xian Yi, 25, lifts one pant leg to show where a truck crashed into him in 2004. He says he fractured his lower leg, rode to the hospital in an ambulance, and got stuck reimbursing the owner for part of his medical bill. “The boss asked for $600, so I had to pay $600,” says Xian Yi. He had to borrow from three co-workers in order to afford the payment. Another deliveryman, Jian Yun, was robbed two years ago in the lobby of an apartment building. “Suddenly a guy came from the back and he had a gun,” he says. “I was so scared, I gave him the money.” The thief made off with $200 in cash and $60 worth of food. When he got back to Saigon Grill, Jian Yun says, “the first question is, ‘Where’s the money?’ They don’t ask ‘How are you? Are you okay? Did you get hurt?’ ”
For their trouble, the deliverymen say they were paid a sum of money—typically $500 or $600 a month—that often had little relationship to the hours they worked or to the minimum wage. (In their lawsuit, the Saigon Grill deliverymen contend that some of them were paid as little as $1.70 an hour.) The rest of their income came from tips. The deliverymen say that customers usually tip $2 or maybe $3 per order. On a good night, a deliveryman could make $60 in tips. Depending on his base pay, he could earn between $20,000 and $25,000 a year.
Beyond basic New York living expenses, the deliverymen have relatives in China to support and some have smuggling debts to repay. The journey from Fujian to New York City typically involves hiring a “snakehead” to smuggle you into the country, leaving you with a debt so huge you have to work nonstop for years to dig out of it. A decade ago, the price to be smuggled was $40,000 or $50,000; now it can climb as high as $70,000. The myriad routes snakeheads use to get their “snakes” into the U.S. are astonishing in their variety: sneaking across the Canadian border; traveling from Malaysia to Mexico, then swimming across the border to Texas; flying straight into Kennedy airport, armed with a fake visa; hopscotching from Serbia to Hungary to Aruba and then to New York. Not paying your smuggling debt is not an option: Those who don’t pay up run the risk of being kidnapped, tortured, and killed.