I just answered an email from some seventh-grade students who were asking about my Forbes.com article "Immigrants, Sweatshops, and Standards of Living." I suggested they look up Benjamin Powell's work, particularly this article on sweatshops that he wrote for the Library of Economics and Liberty a few years ago. Here's some of what I wrote them specifically:
Sweatshops are an important exercise in appreciating the difference between what we see (people in sweatshops) and what we don't see (the jobs they would have if they didn't have sweatshop opportunities). Sweatshops employ children because the children are available for work and because their next-best opportunities (agriculture or, in some cases, prostitution) are usually worse than sweatshop labor. It is definitely good that the workers at least have opportunities to work in sweatshops because, as research by Powell and others has shown, their other alternatives are even worse. I don't have the numbers in front of me, but sweatshop earnings are better than they are in other lines of employment.
Perhaps I'm reading uncharitably, but I think a lot of sweatshop critics misunderstand the economist's argument. The argument isn't that sweatshop conditions and wages are good in some cosmic sense. Rather, they are better than the available alternatives. By passing laws to regulate and restrict sweatshops, we take away from people the best of a lot of bad alternatives. If we genuinely care about people, we should work to give them more and better options, not fewer and worse.