Hoping to Unionize, Deliverymen Picket Upper West Side Restaurant

On a typical night on the Upper West Side, Jian Xie, 23, a bicycle deliveryman, can pedal 80 blocks or more roundtrip to deliver a single order of Vietnamese food.

At 30 or 40 orders a night, Mr. Xie may carry $300 or more of the restaurant’s cash. One night in September 2005, a robber brandished a handgun at Mr. Xie and, he said, he handed over the restaurant’s money and his own, about $500 in all.

That isn’t what angers Mr. Xie, who was unhurt, and the 30 or so other protesting deliverymen, as they marched and waved hand-lettered placards yesterday in front of Saigon Grill, a Vietnamese restaurant on Amsterdam Avenue near 90th Street.

The delivery workers said they were locked out of the restaurant after they announced their intention to organize a union and file a lawsuit against the owners of Saigon Grill, protesting working conditions and what they called an illegal contract. They plan to mount a daily protest in front of the restaurant and urge customers to boycott it.

Saigon Grill has not hired new deliverymen and has not made deliveries since Friday. A fixture on the Upper West Side for 10 years, the restaurant carries a Zagat rating for food of 23 out of a possible 30.

The workers said the Saigon Grill owners recently demanded they sign a contract stating that they received the minimum wage of $7.15 an hour, even though they often received less than $2 an hour.

What was especially galling, Mr. Xie said yesterday, was that after he was robbed, he had to compensate Saigon Grill for all of the restaurant’s money that was stolen by the robber, some $300.

“I was very angry,” Mr. Xie said, through an interpreter, Tony Tsai.

The workers, mostly men, are low-skilled and speak little English, and many are from Fujian, a coastal province in China. They are newly restive, said Josephine Lee, 27, a campaign coordinator for Justice Will Be Served, a group that is trying to organize service workers. She helped organize the protest yesterday. “They used to think if they kept quiet, they could go to another restaurant and things would be better there,” said Ms. Lee. “But it’s the same for them everywhere.”

Simon Nget (pronounced nyet), the owner of Saigon Grill, was emotional when reached for comment at his Queens home. Mr. Nget, a refugee from Cambodia, arrived in the United States in 1981 and has worked in the restaurant business for most of his life.

Asked to rebut the workers’ accusations, Mr. Nget declined, saying, “I am not interested in talking to evil.” When pressed, he denied mistreating his workers.

Weeping, he said in imperfect English that he wanted to address his customers. “I owe my loyal customers a very big sorry,” he said, “The West Side knows me. I am a businessman, I am not a gangster.”

Mr. Nget, who owns two other Saigon Grill restaurants, said he has not taken a vacation for 10 years. His parents, brother, sister and wife work in the restaurant, he said.

As a child, Mr. Nget said, he lived under the Communist Khmer Rouge and spent two years in refugee camps after the war. The Communists killed two of his brothers, he said.

“Over here, this is our heaven!” he exclaimed.