Stories

The Deliverymen’s Uprising

For $1.75 an hour, they put up with abusive employers, muggers, rain, snow, potholes, car accidents, six-day weeks, and lousy tips. Not anymore.

New York | August 6, 2007

ON BROADWAY ON THE UPPER WEST SIDE, the ballet of the deliverymen has begun. Armed with pizza boxes and plastic bags, men on bicycles zip by, one after another, dodging taxis and Town Cars, SUVs and the M104. Every night, it’s the same clashing of horns and bike bells, the same frenzy of pedaling and panting and sweating. Between West 59th and West 115th Streets, the number of places that offer food delivery now totals close to 275.

The deliverymen run the gamut from boys to older men, from fit to flabby, but there are a few things they share in common: They are virtually all immigrants—many from China—and most of them speak little or no English. Among the neighborhood’s most experienced deliverymen is a 25-year-old Chinese immigrant named Justin. For the last seven years, he has been speeding around the streets of Manhattan delivering food for five different restaurants. Now he works six days a week at Ollie’s Noodle Shop & Grille on the corner of Broadway and 84th Street.

On a recent Saturday, Justin is assigned to the 6 p.m.-to-midnight shift. The busiest hours for a deliveryman are always 6 to 9 p.m., but on this night, in the middle of summer, the orders are slow. For the first 25 minutes, Justin sits on the sidewalk with his co-workers, waiting. He is the youngest among them, with a bit of a baby face, short spiky hair, two small earrings in his left ear—and an American name, which he picked from an electronic dictionary. At 6:26, he gets his first chance to work. He grabs two bags off the counter, throws a leg over his bike, and barrels down 84th Street.

One call from a customer complaining about cold food can be enough to get a deliveryman suspended, so Justin always pedals fast, running red lights and cutting in front of traffic to cross the street. Stopping on 85th between West End Avenue and Riverside Drive, he wraps his chain around a pole, snaps shut the rusty padlock, grabs the bags of food, and hits the buzzer—all this takes just four or five seconds. He collects $50 ($46.82 for the order, $3.18 for a tip), and then he’s back on his bike seat, one bag swinging from his handlebars.

Two minutes of pedaling later, he walks into a building on West End, armed with $13.71 worth of Chinese food: beef with garlic, spring roll, egg roll. He walks out with another $15 in his pocket. “They gave me $1.29,” he says with a shrug. By the time Justin gets back to the restaurant, it’s 6:39 p.m. His first round-trip of the evening—nearly one mile of cycling—took thirteen minutes. Nearly an hour into his shift, he’s made just $4.47 in tips.

In New York’s expanding service economy, deliverymen occupy a position near the bottom—earning less than doormen, security guards, nannies, maids, tailors, taxi drivers, and trash collectors and working in far more treacherous conditions. They work long hours and cover huge territories, often in inclement weather, dodging perils like potholes, taxi doors, and tow trucks (one of which killed a deliveryman last year)—all the while hoping they don’t get robbed along the way. And they do this for pay that is often less than the minimum wage.

But that may be about to change. Since last fall, some 70 Chinese deliverymen—including Justin and his co-workers at Ollie’s—have filed lawsuits against five Manhattan restaurants. Never before have so many restaurant deliverymen joined together to battle their bosses. It’s the Year of the Chinese Deliverymen—the year they decided to revolt.


THE GENESIS OF THE DELIVERYMEN’S UPRISING can be traced back to a single incident that happened last summer at Our Place Cuisines of China, a restaurant on the Upper East Side. Deliveryman Guo Z. Wu, 38, says he and his fellow workers were routinely cursed at, and one day he decided he’d had enough of the poor treatment. (Like most of the deliverymen, Wu speaks little English, and he tells his story with the help of a translator.) On this day, Wu says, he walked into the restaurant and saw the “big boss,” general manager and co-owner Kong Ping Chen. “He yelled at me in a very rude way,” Wu says. “I walked out, but on the way to the door, I murmured, ‘You bastard!’ — “Wang ba dan!” — He heard it. He then rushed to me, grabbed my collar, and said, ‘I dare you to repeat it!’ I said, ‘If you feel insulted by the curse word, think how we workers feel when you use curse words on us so often!’”

Not surprisingly, Wu was fired. (Chen declined to comment.) At the time, it seemed like little more than an everyday boss-versus-deliveryman dispute. Then Wu found his way to the Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association, an activist organization in Chinatown, which is part of a campaign fighting for better labor conditions known as Justice Will Be Served. Wu recruited his co-workers, some of whom had also been fired, to join him. The organizers set them up with an attorney, and last August, Wu and nine other deliverymen filed a lawsuit against Our Place, charging that the restaurant paid most of them just $1.75 an hour—an allegation the restaurant’s owners have denied in court papers. (State law requires restaurants to pay deliverymen at least $4.85 an hour.)

News of Wu’s standing up to the “big boss” spread quickly through the deliveryman community, especially the contingent that comes from the Fujian province in southeast China. Over the past 25 or so years, several hundred thousand people have immigrated to New York City from Fujian. Most grew up in a handful of rural counties outside Fuzhou City, in villages that are now nearly devoid of young people. Some, like Justin, left when they were just out of school; others held low-wage jobs—farmer, taxi driver, truck driver, carpenter—before leaving China. Once they get to New York, they connect with friends or relatives and find jobs that don’t require any English skills, often as restaurant deliverymen.

Although some Chinese deliverymen are working legally, many are undocumented. But employers are required by law to pay minimum wage and overtime to all of their workers, regardless of legal status. And you don’t need a green card to file a lawsuit against your employer. (There is little risk of deportation, as the courts don’t require plaintiffs to reveal their immigration status.) After Wu and his co-workers sued Our Place, it wasn’t long before the deliverymen at Saigon Grill, Ollie’s, and Republic joined in. In late July, deliverymen at yet another restaurant—the recently shuttered Rosie & Ting Noodles & Grille in the East Village—sued their employer as well, making this a five-restaurant revolt.

The battle over Saigon Grill has become the focal point of the deliverymen’s energies because, in the words of one organizer, “it’s like cutting off the head.” Many of the deliverymen from other restaurants, including Wu and Justin, have also worked at Saigon Grill, and of the restaurants being sued, the deliverymen say Saigon Grill was the worst. “If we win this case, every restaurant is going to change,” says Yu Guan Ke, 36, who worked at Saigon Grill for ten years. “If we lose or give up, every restaurant will have this situation.”

On a recent Saturday afternoon, seventeen deliverymen picketed outside Saigon Grill on University Place, in Greenwich Village, shouting so loudly they could be heard a block away: “Boycott!” “Saigon Grill!” “Boycott!” “Saigon Grill!” Around their necks, they wore homemade signs with Magic Marker slogans: GRILL THE OWNERS. DEMAND FAIR WAGES. Wu was in the crowd, as were Justin and four of his co-workers from Ollie’s. “We go to the pickets all the time to get our sweat-and-blood money back from the owner,” says Justin.

For the past four months, the men have been protesting at the Vietnamese restaurant’s two locations—here and on the Upper West Side—ten times a week. (There are actually three Saigon Grills, but the one on the Upper East Side is closed for renovations.) Many of the protesters were fired from Saigon Grill in March, when the owner, Simon Nget, shut down his entire delivery operation after the men tried to form a union. On this afternoon, Nget’s nephew stood next to the front door with a video camera trained on the protesters. Nget himself used to come out and distribute flyers telling his side of this story, but these days he stays inside; when the deliverymen protest at the Upper West Side restaurant, he uses the back entrance to avoid their jeers.

Before the conflict began, Saigon Grill had an enormous delivery business. The restaurant on Amsterdam Avenue and 90th Street employed 22 deliverymen, an unusually large number—and it was famous for the quick legs of its deliverymen; Zagat’s 2006 review called its delivery service “lightning fast.” This was especially remarkable considering the size of Saigon Grill’s delivery zone: Its menu promised delivery up to 40 blocks or more. Deliverymen at the Upper West Side location recount dropping off orders from midtown to northern Harlem. Some deliveries were so far away the round-trip could take close to an hour.

The lawsuit—and the stories the deliverymen tell—reveals the cost of keeping such an operation running. According to the deliverymen, they had to report to work on their day off anytime it rained or was especially cold—lucrative conditions for food delivery. “There’s a policy: If it’s 25 degrees or less, everyone has to go to work or they’re fired,” Wu says. They say they also had to buy and repair their own bikes and were forced to pay fines ranging from $20 to $200 for transgressions like slamming a door or being late with a delivery. The deliverymen also charge that their wages were, in effect, diminished because they sometimes had to pay to eat, violating standard industry practice. “They never cooked enough food for us,” says Yu Guan Ke, the lead plaintiff in the case. Once the food provided was gone, the deliverymen had to order from the menu—and unlike the kitchen staff and the waiters, they had to pay for the food themselves. The deliverymen say they had little choice but to spend their tip money on dinner, since speeding around on a bike for hours when you’re hungry is close to impossible.

Worse are the stories about the way the restaurant handled the two great dangers of the deliveryman’s job: injuries and robberies. In both cases, the deliverymen say, they were often forced to reimburse the restaurant’s owner if they were hurt or mugged. Xian Yi, 25, lifts one pant leg to show where a truck crashed into him in 2004. He says he fractured his lower leg, rode to the hospital in an ambulance, and got stuck reimbursing the owner for part of his medical bill. “The boss asked for $600, so I had to pay $600,” says Xian Yi. He had to borrow from three co-workers in order to afford the payment. Another deliveryman, Jian Yun, was robbed two years ago in the lobby of an apartment building. “Suddenly a guy came from the back and he had a gun,” he says. “I was so scared, I gave him the money.” The thief made off with $200 in cash and $60 worth of food. When he got back to Saigon Grill, Jian Yun says, “the first question is, ‘Where’s the money?’ They don’t ask ‘How are you? Are you okay? Did you get hurt?’”

For their trouble, the deliverymen say they were paid a sum of money—typically $500 or $600 a month—that often had little relationship to the hours they worked or to the minimum wage. (In their lawsuit, the Saigon Grill deliverymen contend that some of them were paid as little as $1.70 an hour.) The rest of their income came from tips. The deliverymen say that customers usually tip $2 or maybe $3 per order. On a good night, a deliveryman could make $60 in tips. Depending on his base pay, he could earn between $20,000 and $25,000 a year.

Beyond basic New York living expenses, the deliverymen have relatives in China to support and some have smuggling debts to repay. The journey from Fujian to New York City typically involves hiring a “snakehead” to smuggle you into the country, leaving you with a debt so huge you have to work nonstop for years to dig out of it. A decade ago, the price to be smuggled was $40,000 or $50,000; now it can climb as high as $70,000. The myriad routes snakeheads use to get their “snakes” into the U.S. are astonishing in their variety: sneaking across the Canadian border; traveling from Malaysia to Mexico, then swimming across the border to Texas; flying straight into Kennedy airport, armed with a fake visa; hopscotching from Serbia to Hungary to Aruba and then to New York. Not paying your smuggling debt is not an option: Those who don’t pay up run the risk of being kidnapped, tortured, and killed.


SAIGON GRILL’S OWNER SIMON NGET IS CHINESE, too, but his coming-to-America story is very different from those of the deliverymen. He grew up in Cambodia and fled the Khmer Rouge with his family. In 1981, eight family members—Nget, his parents, two sisters, a brother, and two nephews—came to New York City as refugees and were settled into an apartment on East 187th Street in the Fordham section of the Bronx. Nget’s father had owned a general store in Cambodia; in New York, both parents found jobs in a garment factory.

Nget graduated from Theodore Roosevelt High School and did a year and a half of college, but eventually dropped out and supported himself by waiting tables in Chinese restaurants. At 26, he bought his first business—a coffee shop in Long Island City—with tips he’d saved up and contributions from his family. Six years later, he sold the coffee shop and opened the first Saigon Grill, paying $100,000 to take over an ailing restaurant and signing a $9,000-a-month lease.

Now that he has achieved the classic immigrant dream of entrepreneurial success, Nget has been beset by legal tangles. The subject of the deliverymen’s lawsuit makes him bewildered and angry. “I work hard,” he says. “I take good care of people. I’m not a guy who lives in a big building. I’m a family man.”

Today he lives with his parents, wife, two children, and assorted other relatives—a total of 21 people—in two two-family houses next door to each other in College Point, Queens. Just about all of them work at Saigon Grill: Nget’s wife, Michelle, their two children, and all seven of the relatives who left Cambodia with him. His sister is an assistant manager, his brother is a host, his nephews tend bar, and even his 78-year-old parents help out, with his mother making dumplings while his father repairs chairs and fixes the broken teapots.

Nget says his troubles with the deliverymen started long before the pickets and the lawsuit. “They don’t cooperate with you,” he says. “They gamble outside. They spit. Sometimes they fight. You cannot really control them. They do whatever they want.” In a flyer he distributed to customers, he likened the men’s behavior to that of “thugs” and “gangsters.” “Everybody in Chinatown knows these men from the Fujian province” —particularly those from Changle, the area where many of the deliverymen come from—they know this little village “the people are very no good,” Nget says. “The people are very, very no good.”

Nget denies all of the allegations in the deliverymen’s lawsuit. “They make up stories,” he says. “Everything they say is not true.” He always put out enough food for them, he says, and he never made anyone pay for their own medical expenses. But he refuses to say how much he paid the deliverymen: “After the taxes and meals are factored in, everything is lawful.” So he was deducting the cost of meals from the deliverymen’s wages? “No,” he says, contradicting himself, “it’s a free meal.” Nget prefers to talk about how much the men made in tips. “If you add the two together, they make $20 or $30 or $40 an hour,” he says. “They make more than enough.”

Nget claims he dismantled his delivery operation because the deliverymen were trying to “extort” money from him by threatening to sue. The decision has put a big dent in his business. Nget estimates that delivery made up 25 percent of his revenues and that Saigon Grill’s delivery orders used to total about $200,000 a month. To offset this lost revenue, he has raised his prices 10 percent for customers who dine in. “If I didn’t increase that 10 percent, I couldn’t afford it,” he says. But the deliverymen’s protests are having an effect on the dine-in business as well. “It affects a lot,” says Nget. “Many people don’t come.”

Nget is not about to give in. But the deliverymen may soon have one victory: The owners of Our Place have been negotiating with them, and it seems likely they will settle the lawsuit. The agreement is still being finalized and the amount remains confidential, but the sum will be split among the deliverymen who sued that restaurant, a group that includes both Wu—the original instigator—and Justin, who worked at Our Place for two years before Ollie’s.

And the deliverymen’s lawsuits and pickets are beginning to have a ripple effect in the industry, inspiring other immigrants to sue for fair wages. Deliverymen from Flor de Mayo, a Chinese-Latin restaurant on Amsterdam Avenue, noticed the protests taking place seven blocks north, outside Saigon Grill. On July 20, four deliverymen, all immigrants from Mexico, filed a lawsuit against Flor de Mayo, heralding a new wave in this deliveryman revolt.


ON THIS SATURDAY NIGHT, Justin doesn’t yet know about the Our Place settlement. At the moment he is more concerned with the same questions that preoccupy him every night: How many more orders will he get? How much money will he make? And is it going to start raining before he gets off work?

Between 6 and 10:30 p.m., he dropped off nearly twenty orders. Most were small—$15.99, $15.39, $11.87—and yielded small tips. Two nights earlier, he’d had more luck: He’d delivered an $80 order to 11 Riverside Drive and collected a $12 tip. This night isn’t shaping up too badly, though. At least the weather is cooperating: Just an occasional drizzle, and the temperature hasn’t climbed past 82. And he hasn’t had to deliver any orders to those buildings, mostly along Central Park West, where the doormen carry the food upstairs—and are notorious for keeping some of the tip for themselves.

Shortly before 11 p.m., Justin stands alone outside Ollie’s, waiting for his next order and watching the couples leaving the Loews theater across Broadway, walking arm-in-arm. Slouching against the side of the restaurant, he pulls out a pack of Marlboro Lights and rests a cigarette between his lips. Deliveryman can be a lonely job. Night after night, he walks in and out of the same buildings, delivering food to the same people. He hands them their order, they give him the money, then they shut the door. It’s rare that anyone realizes they’ve seen him before. “Most of them are old customers,” he says. “I recognize them, but I’m not sure they can recognize me.” In fact, before Justin started going to the Saigon Grill pickets and met the organizers, he’d never had an extended conversation with a native-born American.

Finally, at 11:22, a bag of food appears on the counter inside. Justin grabs it and races east on his bicycle, just one block. The kitchen closes in about fifteen minutes, so he figures this may be his final delivery. Then, at 11:43, two more orders come up and he’s dashing north up Broadway. His last stop of the evening is on 87th Street, between Columbus Avenue and Central Park West, on a block with few potholes and no traffic. Trees line both sides of the street, their branches forming a canopy over his head, offering a rare moment of serenity at the end of a grueling shift.

He drops off his last order at 11:52, and in the end, this evening turns out to be no better or worse than most. He collected a total of 23 tips—the largest was $4.76—and when he adds them all up, they come to $59.36.

He pedals back to Ollie’s to lock up his bicycle, and soon he’ll be on his way home, to a tiny, $300-a-month cubicle on the second floor of a residential house in Jackson Heights, a floor he shares with six men from different parts of China, garment workers and factory workers, none of whom he really knows. By the time he gets in, it’s 1 or 1:30 a.m. and he’s usually hungry but too exhausted to cook. So he does what any New Yorker would do: He pulls out his cell phone and orders food. He always calls the same Fuzhou restaurant, which stays open until 2 a.m., and on a $10 or $12 order, he makes a point of giving the deliveryman a $3 tip.

Additional reporting by Rong Xiaoqing

 


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