October 22, 2008 -- Chanting "Justice is served!" and carrying signs proclaiming "Victory for All Delivery Workers" outside a restaurant on Manhattan's Upper West Side Wednesday afternoon, Chinese delivery men celebrated the major legal triumph they won this week: $4.6 million against the restaurant which, a federal judge found, exploited their labor, garnished their wages, and fired them all for trying to fight back.
"We've been fighting for a long time for this, and today it finally comes," said Jianyun Chen, 42, through a translator.
"It will really help our families," added Bao Guo Xie, 40, who said he plans to send his share, over $143,000, back to his children in China so that they can attend school.
Chen and Xie are two of 36 delivery workers, all of whom are Chinese nationals, who united in a suit against the Saigon Grill restaurant company and its owners, saying they were denied minimum wages and overtime pay, forced to pay unlawful "fines" and kickbacks to the restaurants, required to work as many as seven days a week and 12 hours a day, and terminated when they came together to file a suit against the popular eatery.
After the workers were fired, the restaurant announced it would no longer offer customers delivery service, which had been heralded as extremely fast and efficient by local publications.
The delivery men alleged that the restaurant's owners, Simon and Michelle Nget, paid the workers just a couple dollars an hour, made them pay hundreds of dollars out of their own pockets if they were robbed while out on a delivery, and fined them up to $200 for things like letting a door slam or forgetting to have a customer sign a receipt.
At trial, the Ngets denied each allegation and said the delivery men worked far fewer hours than they claimed. Their attorney did not return calls from ABC News seeking comment .
On Tuesday, Magistrate Judge Michael Dolinger of the United States District Court in Manhattan, released his order following a five day trial in June that heard the workers' testimonies and the restaurant's defense. Dolinger, calling the restaurant, "a very profitable enterprise that was able to pay rock-bottom wages," ruled "It was clearly the goal of defendants to minimize their labor costs and to keep a cowed staff in place."
A Check-Cashing Scheme to Inflate the Appearance of Workers' Wages
Dolinger also cited the defendants "check-cashing scheme" in his decision, in which each delivery man was required to deposit a check in the amount of $800 to $1000 a month into a bank account and then withdraw the entire amount to give back to the Ngets. He described it as an "effort by the defendants to create a record suggesting that they were paying their employees more than was in fact the case."
The decision is a major legal victory for exploited restaurant workers all across the country, advocates said, and means workers do have a voice to fight for better working conditions.
"You have won not just for you," New York State Senator Eric Schneiderman said to the delivery drivers at a rally Tuesday outside the restaurant, "you have won for everyone."
Since the suit was filed a year and a half ago, conditions have improved for delivery workers, most of whom are Asian and Hispanic, in New York City, said members of the Chinese Staff & Workers' Association and the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. But elsewhere in the U.S., problems persist, they said.
"The conditions in New York now are actually pretty good compared to other states," said Tony Tsai, vice president of a local restaurant worker's union. He said that in many New Jersey restaurants, for example, delivery workers are not paid any wages at all and must rely purely on tips to make a living.
"The conditions are really, really bad there," Tsai said. "We really tried to change New York to make it an example for other states."
There were also warnings to restaurant owners that they too will face legal action for taking advantage of these workers.
"The American dream is not dead to immigrants to the U.S.," said New York State Assembly Member Linda Rosenthal at the rally. "From now on, rapacious restaurant owners beware because we'll be outside your restaurant if you don't treat your delivery workers with dignity and fairness."
Delivery Drivers Fight Back
Chen, who was reinstated at Saigon Grill this year after the National Labor Relations Board ruled in February that the restaurant had unfairly terminated the men and recommended they be rehired, said conditions are better now, but that the restaurant still finds ways to punish those who fought back.
"They've cut my working hours more than half," Chen said. He came to the U.S. 17 years ago, he said, because he heard he "would make a lot of money in America" to send back to his son in China.
Another former delivery man, Xiangye Chen, 27, said making money also enticed him to come to the U.S. but that this experience made him realize otherwise.
"It's not as easy as I thought to a make a living in America," said Chen, who's now working as a delivery driver at another restaurant where, he said, the conditions are much better. He says he hopes this victory will inspire other workers to face employers who exploit their labor.
"We urge the workers to really come together and unite to fight these working conditions," said Chen. "They need to come forward."