Around 50 former employees, activists, and local residents gathered in front of Saigon Grill at 90th Street and Amsterdam Avenue Friday morning to celebrate its closing. The beleaguered restaurant shut down over the weekend after two years of picketing over alleged wage and working hour abuses.
The crowd also called for the restaurant’s owners to pay a $1 million settlement that a court awarded to workers last month, and for the landlord to rent only to reputable businesspeople who would adhere to labor laws.
“This victory sends a clear message to all other bosses in this community and across the city that when workers and the community come together, sweatshops will not be tolerated,” Sophie DeBenedetto, an organizer for the Justice Will Be Served campaign, said.
It is unclear whether the restaurant’s sudden closure was related to the continued protests, which started in November 2010. State Assembly member Linda Rosenthal said that the owners’ refusal to pay rent could have been a factor.
“They have refused to treat the workers fairly, they have disobeyed the state and federal, local laws that protect workers ... that work with dignity,” she said. “And this is not something we’re going to tolerate. This doesn’t happen here on the West Side anymore.”
Several other restaurants on the Upper West Side have been accused of unfair labor practices in recent months. Student-Worker Solidarity protested in front of Indus Valley restaurant, at 100th Street and Broadway, and at Domino’s Pizza, at 107th Street and Amsterdam, last December.
“We all hoped that this restaurant would do the right thing, would pay the workers,” said Marc Landis, a City Council candidate and Democratic district leader. “It’s unfortunate that it came out this way.”
The Justice Will Be Served campaign is also involved with campaigns targeted at V&T Pizzeria, on 110th Street and Amsterdam, and Land Thai, on 82nd Street and Amsterdam.
Sarah Ahn, an activist from Justice Will be Served, said the group fears that Saigon’s owners will declare bankruptcy and refuse to pay the wages owed to workers. According to a statement the group released Friday, the lawyer representing the workers is pursing the owners of the restaurant.
In an open letter sent to Adam Katz, landlord and master lessor of the building, activists called for him to “ensure that any business that will occupy the vacant space ... does not operate in violation of state and federal labor laws.”
Vincent Cao, a former waiter at the restaurant who was fired in 2010, said the rally sent a message to local businesses about unfair labor conditions.
“When workers are working in a sweatshop environment, they are afraid to speak out, they’re afraid to file a lawsuit,” he said in Chinese. “So sweatshop conditions are truly intolerable. We need to encourage workers to come out and fight for their rights ... so that in the future everybody will have better working conditions.”
“We want a new owner to come in here who’s responsible and who’s going to follow the law,” Ahn said. “We want jobs in the Upper West Side, but we want them to be decent jobs.”
Saigon Grill has a history of labor issues. In 2008, the Southern District Court of New York awarded delivery workers from the restaurant $4.6 million dollars because the restaurant’s then-owners violated wage and overtime laws. These owners were also arrested on counts of falsifying documents.
When the new owners, Bei Lin and Qiao Lin, took over in 2010, workers were quickly disappointed when they fired three older workers.
Cao said that when four younger workers, himself included, told the owners that the act constituted age discrimination, they too were fired. It was then that they decided to join the protests.
“The picket line was not just for this restaurant,” he said. “It’s to show that sweatshop conditions will not be tolerated here ... so a lot of owners are scared.”
Li Hua, a supporter at the rally, said that laws need to change to protect workers in the case of bankruptcy.
“Starting from this picket line, we need to push for the laws to change so that the owners are forced to pay their workers ... and can’t just declare bankruptcy,” Li said. “We hope the law can change. Not just for one person, for one restaurant, but for everyone to protect their working rights.”