Are clothing companies responsible for what goes on behind the doors of their contractors?

That's the question rippling through L.A.'s apparel industry, as manufacturers, contractors, labor unions and legislators debate a controversial legal theory known as "joint liability."

Under a standard of joint liability, if an apparel manufacturer monitors the labor conditions of its sewing contractors, the manufacturer is held jointly responsible, along with the contractor, for any violations discovered there.

The manufacturer, in essence, is held to be a "joint employer" of the contract workers involved in making its clothes.

Currently, an apparel firm's sewing shops are treated as independent contractors over which the manufacturer has no legal responsibility.

But a case currently before the National Labor Relations Board could establish a legal precedent which would hold garment makers to a much tougher standard. On a related front, a California state senator is preparing legislation that would make joint liability the law of the land.

Industry groups say that, if adopted by state and federal regulators, a standard of joint liability could derail efforts to encourage U.S. apparel-makers to monitor their contractors for labor abuses.

What's more, they say the move would push more companies to move their operations overseas, in an effort to escape the reach of U.S. regulators.

"If (joint liability) is upheld, it will destroy monitoring nationwide," said Stanley W. Levy, an attorney for the California Fashion Association. "No company will monitor if it is held to a joint liability standard."

But the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees, better known as UNITE, has long complained that apparel manufacturers attempt to have it both ways.

On the one hand, according to UNITE, apparel firms exercise significant control over their contract workers' terms and conditions of employment by, for instance, sending inspectors to monitor and correct employees' work. At the same time, however, the firms refuse to accept responsibility for any labor violations discovered in those sewing shops, union officials say.

"Inspectors (from apparel firms) are in these shops on a daily basis," said UNITE spokeswoman Hillary Horn. "That speaks to the level of control they have over production and that's why they are joint employers."

The move to hold apparel firms responsible for abuses committed by their contractors has been gathering momentum since the 1995 discovery of 72 Thai laborers toiling in near-slavery conditions at an El Monte factory an event that sparked a nationwide outcry over sweatshop conditions in the apparel industry.

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