The Motorbike Diaries

It’s 11 a.m. on a brisk Friday morning. In the middle of a short block of 40th Road, just off Main Street in Queens, where colorful signs stand out against the densely packed four-story buildings, a handful of Chinese delivery workers dismount from their motorbikes. The dry pavement here is a welcome sight; much of the downtown area was buried under a foot of snow earlier in the week. The men, dressed in sneakers, blue jeans and puffy jackets, gather in a circle at one of the few empty parking spots.    

At the center of this congregation is Peter, a 25-year-old food delivery worker from Tianjin, China. Just ten minutes ago, Peter was pulled over by a traffic cop and fined $90 for not flipping down the eye shield on his motorcycle helmet. Peter vents to his impromptu support group in Mandarin: “I had it down, he was just out to get me. Nothing I could’ve done.” One of the workers asks Peter, “Is he bald and slow?” Without directly answering the question, Peter points to the southwest direction and indicates that he was stopped at the intersection of Main Street and Kissena Boulevard, one block from where the men are standing. “It’s the same guy!” says the worker. “He always goes after us!” Others begin to crack jokes to help Peter cope with his anger. Peter then turns and quips, “I guess I’ll be working free for the next day and a half.”

Peter works in a two-level restaurant in downtown Flushing, a Queens neighborhood that consists of Asian immigrants from China, South Korea, and Malaysia, as well as blacks and Latinos from across Central and South America. The neighborhood is brimming with Asian restaurants that are cheap enough to be mainstays for locals and good enough to draw food enthusiasts from around the city. When Peter leaves the group on the sidewalk and enters the ground level of the restaurant, he sees the lunchtime crowd that comes for the $4.95 lunch combinations that include such Cantonese specialties as braised pig’s feet, stir-fry bak choy, and beef short ribs. Chinese New Year songs are blaring on the sound system and customers are jammed in front of the buffet table, shouting out their entrée selections to a handful of female servers.

Peter was accepted to a graduate school in Connecticut to study computer science and came to the United States on a student visa. When he realized the tuition costs were beyond his means, he took a job as a mechanic fixing motorbikes and scooters. But the work was difficult and the hours were demanding, so about six months ago he began delivering for Chinese restaurants in Flushing, where he lives. With more flexible hours, Peter finds time between breaks to read and study English. On a busy day, when the weather is bad and people want hot food delivered to their doors, there are nonstop delivery requests and Peter can earn as much as $120 in a 12-hour shift. On a slow day, he depends on his base salary of $60, which is high compared to the typical base of $20 per day in this line of work.

New York City is full of restaurants marketing ethnic food, and they’re often owned by or run by relatively recent immigrants employing other immigrant workers: Asian restaurant owners, for example, often employ immigrants from their countries of origin to provide their delivery service. Delivery workers are some of the most overworked and mistreated in New York City, and they’ve started to voice their dissatisfaction. In the fall of 2006, 70 deliverymen banded together to file lawsuits against five Manhattan restaurants, including Saigon Grill. The delivery workers charged the owners of Saigon Grill with paying them only $1.75 per hour. Simon Nget, an owner of Saigon Grill, was arrested on more than 400 criminal charges--the lawsuit brought these offenses to the attention of authorities--and was ordered to pay $4.6 million in back wages to the workers. But Nget did not pay all of what was ordered, and in 2010 he sold the restaurant to new owners who assumed the remaining debt. Not only did these new owners not pay, but the workers accused them of age discrimination for firing workers over 50, and of retaliating against those workers who tried to form a union by cutting their hours. Since November of 2010, workers have participated in a picket of the restaurant. Three weeks ago, a state court ruled that the new owners must pay back wages of $1 million, a victory for the picketers, though they say that the owners are still not paying the back wages. The picket ended on March 1st when the new owners abruptly closed down the restaurant.

Even when the problems these workers face are less extreme, it is not hard to understand why their working conditions have fueled strong and ongoing protests across the city in recent years. Delivery workers must provide and maintain their own bicycles, which can cost up to $100 when new. Most ride on regular bicycles, sometimes outfitted illegally with a motor, and others like Peter ride on motorbikes. Those who use motorbikes are often expected to go farther distances, and, since they must deliver the food quickly, the high speeds at which they travel can make their work dangerous. Just last month, Peter was hit by a car. The accident damaged his bike and caused sprains in his arms and legs. The medical treatments are costing him thousands of dollars, which he hopes the other driver’s insurance will cover. Rain, snow, and sleet can create even more difficult conditions, and the tips are not necessarily better.

Leo, a 28-year-old Chinese worker also from Tianjin, delivers for a restaurant across the street from where Peter works. Around 11:30 on the same morning, Leo comes out of his restaurant and asks Peter for help loading the bags of food onto his Zuma motorbike. By the eighth bag, he realizes that all the food will require him to take two trips. Fortunately, the destination is at an Asian supermarket only three blocks away. The market’s workers are frequent patrons. “I don’t get tips from this place,” Leo says. “They are a frequent customer and have something worked out with my boss. My boss will give me two or three dollars later.”

Another delivery worker, Larry, who used to be a fisherman in Fujian province, works at a small Taiwanese restaurant in the neighborhood that relies heavily on take-outs and deliveries. “The clients and the boss keep complaining if we don’t make it fast enough,” he says. “Some clients will even curse at you.” Workers feel pressured to disobey traffic rules by riding along sidewalks, going through red lights, and traveling the wrong way down one-way streets. They’re frequently fined.

The fines are often more than $100, but there are occasions when an officer will cite a delivery worker for two or three infractions, for a total of $200 to $300 at a time. “Some months, my citations are more than my earnings,” Leo says. “And sometimes at work when you have so much to worry about, your focus is not there and you make minor traffic mistakes and you get caught.”

These workers say that the number of citations they get has increased dramatically in recent years. In 2011, the police issued 21,000 citations to cyclists on sidewalks alone, which does not include other traffic infractions (there are no specific numbers for the fines given to commercial cyclists versus non-commercial). Besides giving traffic fines, last summer New York’s transportation department started sending teams of inspectors to businesses to explain commercial cycling laws, and to issue fines of up to $300 to the businesses directly. This effort on the part of the city to approach businesses rather than their underpaid workers doesn’t change the fact that workers feel targeted, and that workers have difficulty standing up for themselves because of language issues. Larry describes being unable to explain his side of the story to a judge: “I remember at court the cop shouted at me saying he would definitely win the case. I ended up paying the fine because I couldn’t speak English.”

Delivery workers are also frequent victims of robbery. Kevin, who’s from Shandong, describes one ploy: “For example, you may receive an order pretending it is from 5C on the second floor. When you enter the building, the mugger would wait for you and forcibly take your money.” If Kevin receives an order from a new address where he has not delivered before, or if it’s late at night, he takes extreme caution. He usually calls back first to see if someone answers. Then, when he arrives, he will only enter the building if he is buzzed in by the people from the apartment from which the order was placed. He is always paying attention to his surroundings, to be sure that no one is following him.

The workers all talk about the tiring nature of the job. They work seven days a week, alternating between full and half days. They might have a day off every few weeks, but no holidays or vacations. The hours are long, usually from around 10 a.m. until midnight, although depending on the establishment there are slow periods where the workers can have some downtime if they are not asked to carry out other duties like busing tables or washing dishes. They can be required to travel as much as eight to ten miles for a delivery, an hour each way. They frequently get very low tips. As Leo says, “Your body becomes numb. Every day you go through the same routine and grind. Your body doesn’t feel anything anymore.”

Why do workers leave China to come and work under such difficult conditions? Several of the workers cited the low earnings in China as a reason. Peter explains that in China, he could only earn between 2,000 and 3,000 yuan per month, which is between $300 and $450. At least in the States, he can earn enough to cover rent, transportation, and food. But in search of better earnings, he and his peers must suffer the social stigma that comes with being a delivery worker. Larry describes how residents of buildings sometimes harass him by playing with the elevator when he’s trying to make a delivery. On some occasions, younger residents throw baseballs at his helmet.

Kevin, whose father is a film producer and whose mother runs a hotel business, had a middle-class existence in China. Here, he is part of an underclass. But Kevin still had a dream of moving to America, and he can make more money as a lower-class delivery-worker in America than he can as a middle-class laborer in China. He describes it this way: “It’s just like the soccer league in China. Even the top team in China can’t compete with the poorest team in the league of Spain or Italy. Likewise, no matter how happy I am with my current life, at the end of the day I’m still a delivery guy. My way of life in the states is totally different to when I am in China. In America, I am just an immigrant worker.” He would never want his friends in China to see him this way, working twelve hours days, wearing “peasant-style” clothing and riding a tiny scooter. “If I was in Tsingdao,” he says, “I would never wear clothes like this even if you paid me $10,000.”

Perhaps the picket line provides the best opportunity for bringing people together to fight for better working conditions. Most notably, Chinese delivery workers have banded together with Mexican delivery workers to demand change. Back in 2007, Mexican delivery workers from the Flor de Mayo restaurant noticed the Saigon Grill protests and filed their own lawsuit against their restaurant. The National Mobilization Against Sweatshops (NMASS), a grassroots, worker center based in Lower East Side, works closely with the Chinese Workers Staff Association (CSWA) to build connections between Chinese and Hispanic workers and fight for fair labor practices. 

When we visited the picket line outside Saigon Grill in November, there was one Mexican immigrant among the mostly Asian and white protesters. He was Carlos Rodriguez, an ex-Dominos Pizza delivery worker who had passed by Saigon Grill and seen the protesters a few months earlier. Although hired by the pizza chain for delivery at $4.50 per hour, he was required to do many other tasks with no overtime and he was not always paid. He is now a fixture on the nightly picket line, talking to customers and convincing them why they should not eat at Saigon Grill.

The Saigon Grill campaign has had a ripple effect in the Upper West Side community. The campaign triggered several actions mentioned: The restaurant closed down on March 1st. Seventy-nine local businesses have signed on to the campaign’s No Sweatshop Pledge list and a number of local elected officials and community leaders have endorsed the campaign. Some Columbia University students, who had been a staple in the picket line, have formed a worker-student group and are now supporting a group of university workers in their demand for a new labor contract. Workers are picketing for better treatment at other restaurants, like a local Dominos. This series of events in the last four months, along with the recent unionization of Hot and Crusty Bakery workers, represent a changing climate for New York City food workers. As one of the ex-Saigon Grill workers puts it, “We’re not only after better pay, we want to change people’s mentality about how to treat workers.” 

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