By Serena Solomon
UPPER WEST SIDE — Disgruntled ex-employees of a Cuban restaurant who claim they made as little as $2 per hour protested outside the Amsterdam Avenue eatery on Tuesday afternoon to demand unpaid wages.
The group of ex-workers stood holding signs and chanting outside Café con Leche between W. 95th and W. 96th streets, alleging that the restaurant forced them to work 12 to 14 hours a day for rock-bottom pay.
"I worked 12 hours a day, and [the owner of the restaurant] paid me $30 for the whole day," said Silvestre De Jesus, 41, who worked at the Caribbean-inspired restaurant for three years before quitting a year ago.
Throughout his time there, De Jesus said, the staff was made to take on more responsibilities and work more hours without an increase in wages.
"We want to be paid for all the years of work," he said.
Even a current member of Café con Leche’s management staff, who wished to remain anonymous, expressed a negative view of the owners, saying they rarely visit the restaurant and that workers are not treated well.
The demonstrators, who got support from the National Mobilization Against Sweatshops (NMASS) and other workers in the area, plan to protest every Tuesday and Wednesday until their demands are met.
NMASS, a national organization that supports a worker’s right to a 40-hour workweek and livable wages, organized the event with the help of member/volunteer Doreen Wang.
Chander Malik, who co-owns the restaurant with Parbodh Sharma, denied that his staff had ever been treated poorly but confirmed that his lawyers had entered in to arbitration with attorneys for the ex-workers.
"What they are doing is not fair," Malik said in a phone conversation, regarding the small but noisy protest outside his restaurant. "There are no grounds for this."
The restaurateur, who owns a handful of other eateries on the Upper West Side, was profiled by the West Side Spirit last October.
In the article, Malik spoke about his love of volunteering and even mentioned mopping floors at his restaurants when his workers needed a helping hand.
Dena Fisher, 65, a local resident and regular patron of Café con Leche, once held a party there for 50 people but vowed not to return until the issue was resolved.
"I'm shocked, absolutely shocked by this," she said. "For a Latin American restaurant to be so abusive like this."