Loud shouts to boycott Saigon Grill came with renewed zeal on Tuesday as picketers continued demands for payment after a judge ordered the Upper West Side restaurant to pay a $1 million debt to workers.

On February 11, State Supreme Court Judge Marcy Friedman ruled that the current owners, Jiu Sheng Lin and Qiao Lin must pay the money to 36 former employees  as part of an agreement to assume the debt owed by the former owner, Simon Nget, after a $4.6 million court settlement in 2009 over worker exploitation. Nget and his wife paid as little as $2 per hour to their workers with no overtime, the court found.  In addition to the settlement, Nget went to jail for creating fake payroll records and taking kickbacks from workers.

Lin’s lawyer, Eric Su, said the Lins purchased Saigon Grill on West 90th Street and Amsterdam Avenue in 2010 for $1.5 million with $500,000 down and an agreement to pay the $1 million over a year; however, they alleged that they were unaware that a previous agreement existed between the workers and a worker advocate group, Chinese Staff & Workers Association (CSWA) to pay CSWA 30 percent of the settlement. According to court papers, failure to pay the settlement stemmed from concerns over possible implications of illegal kickbacks, but this was overruled in court when the judge ordered payment last Monday.

Further charges of age discrimination were filed against the new owners in 2010 after the Lins allegedly fired older workers and younger workers who came to their defense.  A worker advocate group from the Justice Will Be Served Campaign (JWBS), sponsored by CSWA, National Mobilization Against Sweatshops and 318 Workers Union has organized a boycott of the restaurant five days a week during lunch and dinner hours since 2010 to demand justice.

Su denies the allegations of age discrimination.  “There is a substantial amount of money involved and this is not your typical workers standing up against evil case,” he said. Su said that many of the problems stemmed from the actions of Wing Lam, leader of both CSWA and 318 Workers Union, which represents different trade unions.  “I believe they are one and the same,” said Su of the two groups.  He said that Lam acted as the broker who sold the restaurant in 2010 and that on the day the transfer took place, he brought in about eight or nine of his union workers to be waiters in the restaurant in order to gain control.  roshe run hyp qs The new owners had no positions available, but agreed to try them out.  Su claims that after one day, the workers walked out and were not fired as they claim and that they were placed there to create a conflict in order to create support for the payment of the $1 million settlement.

Several worker lawsuits followed, including one against CSWA, which was dismissed by a federal judge and is on appeal. The union filed a complaint with the NLRB last February  over the firings and a civil suit over alleged non-payment of minimum wage and overtime pay to delivery workers. The cases are pending.

Su contends that  Lam felt slighted over the treatment of his workers and  says he has a personal interest in the over $300,000 portion of the settlement that would go to CSWA as the real reason for the boycotts since 2010.

In an interview Lam protested that he has done nothing wrong, “If it was true then why has CSWA won so many court cases,” he argued, “and why have all the charges against us been thrown out of court?” He also said that as a non-profit group CSWA is barred by law from taking fees from the workers but can take legal donations.

As to why the new owners were not paying their debt to the workers, he added: “I think they are just milking the money  and using the lawyer to drag out the case in the courts. They want to keep the sweatshop going…”

The boycotts have severely affected Saigon Grill’s revenue and their ability to pay the debt.  Frank Chang, 69, a friend of the current owner who was also a former manager under the old owners, said the once vibrant business has lost over half of its workers and business is down 75 percent.  Chang agreed with the lawyer’s allegations.  “Three-one-eight makes use of the union to go after the money,” he said.  Chang predicted the restaurant might go bankrupt as a result of the boycotts.

Outside the restaurant, Jei Fong, 31, a member of CSWA and contact person for the JWBS campaign, handed out press packets containing the court ruling and a press release with endorsement by over two dozen elected officials and community groups. She and members of the picket line called for justice for the workers by demanding improved working conditions, payment of the lawsuit settlement and rehiring fired workers.

Photo by Loretta Chin