By Leslie Albrecht
UPPER WEST SIDE — Most people think of sweatshops as factories where workers toil in dismal conditions, but some say sweatshops exist on the Upper West Side, and they want to stamp them out.
Justice Will Be Served, a workers' rights group, will hold a rally this Saturday to launch a "sweatshop-free" campaign on the Upper West Side. The 1 p.m. rally will be held outside Saigon Grill, the restaurant on Amsterdam Avenue and West 90th Street whose previous owners were found guilty of mistreating workers in 2008.
The restaurant is under new ownership, but Justice Will Be Served says labor problems persist, including age discrimination and retaliation against workers who've tried unionize. They've been picketing outside Saigon Grill and calling for a boycott since December.
Saigon Gril's attorney, Eric Su, said no labor problems exist at the restaurant.
Now Justice Will Be Served wants to expand its campaign to other neighborhood businesses. They're asking business to "pledge" to remain "sweatshop-free," meaning that they'll follow labor laws.
"Some folks might say sweatshop is too strong a term, but I would say that wage and hour violations shouldn't be tolerated, and 'sweatshop' is shorthand for that," said Eric Dirnbach, a volunteer for the sweatshop-free campaign who also works for a construction union.
Workers' rights is an issue near and dear to many Upper West Siders, but many are unaware of the extent of the problem in their own backyard, Dirnbach said.
Since Saigon Grill's workers pushed to improve conditions in 2007, employees at several other restaurants including Flor de Mayo, Ollie's and Tomo Sushi have won similar improvements, according to Justice Will Be Served.
"Pressure on small businesses in the neighborhood can lead them to cut corners, so this is a campaign to educate people about it," Dirnbach said.
Justice Will Be Served has lined up support from City Councilwoman Gale Brewer, Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal and State Senator Adriano Espaillat. Organizers for the group have been holding weekly meetings at Trinity Luthern Church.
The group will announce a list of business that have signed its sweatshop-free pledge at Saturday's rally.
Su, the attorney for Saigon Grill, said workers from the restaurant plan to speak at the rally, too.