“The Real Cost of Takeout”


NYT Diner’s Journal, March 26, 2007

March 26, 2007, 2:46 pm

“The Real Cost of Takeout”

By Julia Moskin

New York runs on takeout and delivery, but the working conditions of the guys who actually show up with the food is something many New Yorkers prefer not to think about.

Usually, thats pretty easy I just tip big and hope for the best, said Indira Mitra, who lives near Union Square.

But for the last two weeks, patrons of Saigon Grill a popular restaurant whose Upper West Side location does more than 700 deliveries on an average day have been confronted with reality. All 36 delivery men at both locations (the other is on University Place and one on the East Side has been closed for renovations) have been locked out since March 2, when they told the owner, Simon Nget, that they planned to unionize.

Last Thursday, the Asian-American Legal Defense and Education Fund filed a lawsuit on behalf of the men that contained some excruciating allegations: that they are paid less than $1.60 an hour and are required to work at least 70 hours each week; that they have to buy and maintain their own bikes out of that money, and that they are fined for late deliveries, being mugged, and even tiny infractions like closing the restaurant door too loudly.

The filing was accompanied by a call for a boycott and a rally on Amsterdam Avenue, attended by television cameras and local dignitaries like the Manhattan borough president, Scott Stringer, and State Senator Eric Schneiderman, who lives just blocks from the restaurant (he claims not to have a favorite local delivery place, though).

Mr. Schneidermans command of Mandarin made him popular with the protesters and delivery men, most of them immigrants from Fujian province in China (although the restaurant is nominally Vietnamese, its owners and staff are mostly ethnically Chinese).

$1.60 an hour is slave labor in any language! he roared, repeating the line. You would be making more than that in China!

Whether that last statement is true or not, that pay is pathetically low. The federal minimum wage for tipped restaurant workers remains at an astonishing $2.13 per hour; it hasnt moved since 1997. Last month the Senate passed a bill that, if passed, will increase it over two years. (That, however, would be against the fervent wishes of the National Restaurant Association, the industrys lobby group, which represents restaurant owners.) And on January 1, New York States minimum wage went up to $7.15 per hour, but the exemption for food service workers remained in place at $4.60 per hour.