By Nancy Matsumoto
Former deliverymen at two different 8th Ave. and Hudson St. sushi restaurants are locked in battle with their one-time employers, spearheading regular picket lines in front of both establishments to protest what they claim are owners’ illegal and unfair practices, and seeking reinstatement to their jobs.
Tian Wen Ye, formerly of Kawa Sushi (24 8th Ave.), and Jian Kui Chen, formerly of Sushi on Hudson (now called Sushi West, and still located at 556 Hudson St.), both say they were paid wages below the government-mandated minimum and faced retaliation for complaining about their treatment and trying to organize fellow workers.
Both men say they worked more than 70 hours a week, Ye making $1.90 per hour and Chen making less than $3 per hour. The state-mandated minimum wage for tip-making positions is $4.60 per hour. Ye was fired in March 2007 after filing a complaint about the working conditions at Kawa with the Federal Department of Labor, and says he was then blacklisted by area restaurants. Chen was fired in June 2008 after demanding that his bosses comply with the law by paying employees minimum wage and overtime pay and fully reporting their wages and tips to tax authorities.
Ye and Chen, both from Fujian Province, China, have been supported by a coalition called Justice Will be Served (representing Local 318 Restaurant Workers Union, Chinese Staff & Workers’ Association, and a group called National Mobilization Against Sweatshops). They spoke, through a translator, to WestView at the Chinatown offices of the Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association.
Although the owners of both Kawa Sushi and Sushi West declined, through employees, to speak to WestView, the owners of Kawa Sushi, (a group headed by Yi Xiang Cao), have hung flyers in front of the restaurant telling their side of the story. Titled “Shame on you! Tian Wen Ye!” the flyer claims that Ye, as delivery manager, “always asked for more tips” from customers and was fired for fighting with another deliveryman. The flyer claims that Ye only hired his friends and relatives to work as delivery people, and disrupted other customers at their hangout, Starbucks on Greenwich Ave, with “their bad attitude.”
Ye and five co-workers managed to win their jobs back at Kawa Sushi in January 2008, along with compensation for underpayment. The next month, the men filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging minimum wage and overtime labor law violation and retaliation for organizing. Ye continued his organizing efforts and claims that in October 2009 his boss sent workers (including the brother-in-law of his boss) to threaten to beat him up. Ye was subsequently fired a second time.
According to the Kawa Sushi flyer, after Ye was rehired in early 2008 he continued his “rude” behavior, encouraged a staff member “to beat the kitchen chef,” and then “blackmailed” Kawa’s owners by demanding $20,000 in payment from the restaurant in exchange for not making waves.
Ye, Chen and many other restaurant, nail salon and other service industry workers have been emboldened by a $4.6 million October 2008 U.S. District Court judgment that awarded 36 former workers at two Manhattan branches of the Saigon Grill restaurant chain for back pay and damages. The judgment found blatant and systematic violations of minimum wage and overtime laws. Earlier, a National Labor Relations Board judge had ordered Saigon Grill to reinstate 28 deliverymen; the judge deemed them to have been fired in retaliation for the planned lawsuit.
Ken Kimerling, legal director of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), which filed the federal lawsuit on behalf of the former Saigon Grill deliverymen, says it is “not totally uncommon” for employers to retaliate by firing employees who fight for legal pay. Many owners, however, he says, “smarten up, because retaliation can lead to additional penalties and damages.” Kimerling adds that physical threats aimed at restaurant workers, such as the one that Ye alleges were made against him, are also not uncommon when employees agitate for more pay or try to unionize.
The strikes have attracted several supporters from the neighborhood, including W. 12th St. resident Harry Chotiner, who teaches film in NYU’s continuing education department, and Perry Street resident Merry Tucker, a retired public school teacher. Chotiner took one of the flyers that Ye was handing out and decided to learn more about the case. He called the Justice will be Served number on the flyer and read the handout from Kawa Sushi. “[Kawa] tried to turn themselves into a victim and that seemed ridiculous to me,” he says. “If [Ye] was threatening the restaurant, it doesn’t seem to me that he would go to a lawyer at that point and get the legal machinery involved.” Tucker sees the strike as part of a larger, nationwide movement that seeks fairer treatment of low-wage restaurant workers, who often face wage, gender or racial discrimination.
On a recent below-freezing day, Ye stood in front of Kawa Sushi with other picketers, carrying a sign that read, “Stop the retaliation, reinstate me now!” He said confidently, “Of course we will win. The boss is doing the wrong thing, and we have a lot of worker and neighborhood support. We will continue the strike until the problem is solved.”
Nancy Matsumoto blogs about the West Village and other topics at www.nancymatsumoto.com