A group of Chinatown garment workers last Thursday urged a panel of federal court judges to hold the company they make clothes for responsible for their sweatshop-like conditions, even if that company did not directly hire them.

In an appeal of Zheng v. Liberty Apparel Co., a case first heard by Judge Richard Casey of the U.S. District Court last March, 26 immigrant garment workers argued that Liberty Apparel, a clothing manufacturer, should be held accountable for illegal labor practices allegedly carried on by some of its contractors. Between November 1998 and April 1999, they charge, their employer — the Chinatown-based Factory 103 which Liberty contracted to hire and oversee the workers — neglected to pay them thousands of dollars in wages. For that, they argued, both Liberty and the contractor should be held responsible.

Particularly, they add, since the owner of the factory closed up shop and fled to Virginia before the workers could press charges, leaving them with no means of recourse.

Judge Casey did not buy their arguments last spring: Liberty could not possibly be considered an employer, he ruled, because it did not directly hire or fire workers, or control their work schedules or conditions of employment.

But the workers found last week’s appeal hearing encouraging. The told the panel of judges that Liberty employees visited the now-defunct Factory 103 between two and four times a week for hours at a time, monitoring the workers and pushing them to sew faster. And when they were not getting paid, one worker said she reported that to Liberty officials.

To that, the judges asked questions “that made it seem like they really knew how the subcontracting system is used as a shield for manufacturers,” said Joann Lum, director of National Mobilization Against SweatShops, which has spearheaded a public awareness campaign on behalf of the workers

Calls to Liberty were not returned by press time.

The court is expected to issue a decision within a month.

However they rule, it is expected to have historic implications for the garment industry. “If allowed to stand, this decision is an attack on workers rights and progress and 20 years of fighting sweatshops,” said Karah Newton of National Mobilization Against SweatShops. “Zheng v. Liberty will not only have a huge impact on the garment industry, but also on an economy that’s moved very much into subcontracting. This system only works for employers — it dissipates the blame and allows conditions to keep getting worse.”