The battle of Saigon Grill flared up again Sunday as at least a dozen picketers braved the bitter cold to assail new management. Placards reading “Boycott Saigon Grill” recalled the protests that began in 2007 after former owners Simon and Michelle Nget fired 36 delivery workers — and were later ordered to pay them $4.6 million in back wages by a federal judge. When they were arrested in 2008, the Ngets had to sell their restaurants at 620 Amsterdam and on University Place. The new UWS owners, Bei Lin and Quiao Lin, opened on October 1; however, protesters began picketing on November 23, accusing management of discriminating against waiters and busboys referred by the militant Chinese Staff and Workers Association, a labor-rights group based in Chinatown.
"We referred ten and they actually hired them," said Wing Lam, executive director of CSWA. "They wanted one of them to be the manager. But they said they could keep only four (waiters) and wanted to get rid of the three older workers. The other (workers) said that’s not right, so they fired everybody," he claimed. The referrals were on the job for just one day.
Lam also contended the new Saigon Grill management was "harassing" the delivery workers that CSWA referred to the restaurant for trying to organize a union. CSWA organizer Josephine Lee says the group will soon file a complaint against the restaurant with the National Labor Relations Board. She said management had agreed to abide by the labor laws but had not kept its promise.
Saigon Grill manager Frank Chang denied Chinese Staff’s allegations, claiming that waiters they had sent "were not qualified." He told us, "They sent seven people, and only one or two were qualified. Customers complained." Chang admitted CSWA helped his boss get a liquor license after it was suspended because of the criminal charges against the Ngets. But he claimed the labor-rights group "wants to control the business. They want to pick the waitstaff. I said one or two. They wanted all of them (hired)."
Chang estimated that Bei Lin paid about $2 million to buy the UWS restaurant from Simon Nget. He noted his boss is "very sad" about the protests, adding that business has slowed because of the picketing.
Update: "I am deeply troubled by allegations of worker mistreatment, including age discrimination and a refusal to hire union members, especially in light of Saigon Grill’s long history of exploitation under the old management,” says New York State Assembly member Linda B. Rosenthal. “I will be meeting with the new owner this week and thoroughly reviewing the charges workers have identified.”