Chinese Restaurant Workers Protest Low Wages

Chinese restaurant workers are protesting their low wages by picketing some restaurants in New York's Chinatown. Some workers say they were fined by their bosses for infractions such as not entering meal orders into the computer quickly enough.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This week, we're reporting on immigration as seen through the kitchen of your local Chinese restaurant. Yesterday, we reported on the system that brings Chinese restaurant workers to the United States and employs them across the country. They work long hours for low pay, which is one reason that Chinese food is so cheap.

Now in our second report, NPR's Margot Adler looks at a strike at one restaurant and how it is affecting workers in the community.

MARGOT ADLER: Minimum wage in New York City is $7.15-an-hour. Food service workers who get tips get around $4.80 an hour, but it doesn't always work like that. Over the last month, delivery workers have been picketing the Saigon Grill, which, despite its name, hires mostly Chinese workers.

ADLER: The delivery workers, almost all from Fujian Province, say there were locked out after protesting pay of $1.50 an hour, well below the minimum wage. In response, the restaurant suspended delivery. There's a lawsuit pending. Demonstrators picket during dinner hours at the grill's two restaurants several times a week.

Chung Seun Yi(ph) worked at the Saigon Grill for six years, starting when he was 18. Strike organizer Josephine Lee(ph) translates.

Mr. CHUNG SEUN YI (Employee, Saigon Grill): (Foreign language spoken)

Ms. JOSEPHINE LEE (Chinese Staff and Workers' Association): The boss only gave me $1.50.

Mr. CHUNG: (Chinese spoken)

Ms. LEE: And I worked more than 70 hours a week.

ADLER: Chung also says delivery workers were fined for slamming the door or for not punching an order quickly into the computer.

Mr. CHUNG: (Chinese spoken)

Ms. LEE: And if we were delivering order and the customer, you know, hadn't received the order and they called in this to the restaurant to complain, then we have to pay $200.

ADLER: Before the strike, on a typical Saturday night, there were lines outside the door at the Saigon Grill. But now on nights when there are demonstrations the crowd is smaller. Simon Yet(ph) is the owner of the grill. He's from Cambodia. He tells me he doesn't want to talk specific because there is a lawsuit. About the charges, he will only say…

Mr. SIMON YET (Owner, Saigon Grill): Nothing is true, nothing is true because, you know…

ADLER: Because they say, for example, that you only paid them $1.60 an hour but…

Mr. YET: Nothing is true. Nothing is true.

ADLER: But when we sit down in his spacious restaurant on a weekday afternoon, for the first 15 minutes what he says over and over is this…

Mr. YET: I understand about (unintelligible) of every single person. I am a good human being. You can ask my employee, everyone in here.

ADLER: But then he gets angry. He says the delivery workers only work seven and a half hours a day, not 12 hours a day.

Mr. YET: Three, four hour at a lunch time, four hour at a dinnertime delivery. The delivery workers doesn't do anything in between, you know what I mean?

ADLER: Over the last few years, strikers have won wage increases at several restaurants in Chinatown, and other popular restaurants have been targeted. Josephine Lee of the Chinese Staff and Workers' Association is outside the Saigon Grill on the picket line.

Ms. LEE: There has been a number of people who have written letters or emails to the boss, but the boss is still very resistant.

ADLER: Oh, I see that some people are walking in and people are being booed.

What are you doing here?

Mr. DON RASBORN(ph): I used to support this restaurant. I'm not coming here anymore.

ADLER: Don Rasborn lives in the neighborhood. Others in the community are divided. They get tips, says one woman coming out of the restaurant. And another woman says she is heartbroken. She drove three hours to get here, she says, but she doesn't go in. So far in the struggle no side is giving in. But the effort to organize Chinese restaurant workers is spreading.

Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

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