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 restaurantâ€™s cash. One night in September 2005, a robber brandished a handgun at Mr. Xie and, he said, he handed over the restaurantâ€™s money and his own, about $500 in all.
That isnâ€™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 restaurantâ€™s money that was stolen by the robber, some $300.
â€œI was very angry,â€ 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. â€œThey used to think if they kept quiet, they could go to another restaurant and things would be better there,â€ said Ms. Lee. â€œBut itâ€™s the same for them everywhere.â€
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 workersâ€™ accusations, Mr. Nget declined, saying, â€œI am not interested in talking to evil.â€ When pressed, he denied mistreating his workers.
Weeping, he said in imperfect English that he wanted to address his customers. â€œI owe my loyal customers a very big sorry,â€ he said, â€œThe West Side knows me. I am a businessman, I am not a gangster.â€
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.
â€œOver here, this is our heaven!â€ he exclaimed.