We hear of children who labor by candlelight in filthy, noisy, hot and humid basements; women enslaved by unsafe machines mixing toxic chemicals without adequate protective gear; men who would stay dehydrated for the duration of their long shifts to minimize the necessity of bathroom breaks. How can we go to church on Sunday wearing clothes and shoes manufactured by them? The truth is that buying "sweatshop" products at our local superstore does more to alleviate world poverty than all Bono concerts, U.S. government aid to third-world countries, or your generous donations to any of the UN charitable programs.
What exactly do we achieve with our gut-level reaction to boycott companies that profit from the sweat of Third World children? Do you release them from their sweatshop prisons to go back to sunny schools and kindergartens? Do their moms and dads get promoted to higher paying jobs in air-conditioned offices when you refuse to buy from Walmart? Alas, this is one more example of nice people acting with good intentions only to increase the misery. Boycotting sweatshops, insisting on regulations meant to improve work conditions, or legislation to raise wages "across the board" leaves millions of people the choice of crime, prostitution, or starvation. The only short-term beneficiaries of such consumer activism and legal barriers are certain declining unionized American industries and their lobbyists in Washington, D.C.
One reason why Africa is lagging behind other underdeveloped parts of the world is the inability of local governments to create an environment conducive to opening enough sweatshops. Both parents and children in those countries are happy when free trade allows a new factory to open up new opportunities for them, enabling them to move away from much more dangerous and less rewarding alternative occupations in their agricultural or informal urban sectors.
When you refuse to buy their jeans and sneakers on economically unsound, ideologically skewed, pseudo-religious principles, you close the best opportunity they currently have to make a living, accumulate skills and capital to start their own business, and provide better choices for the next generation. So next time a group of Ivy League college activists try to recruit you to boycott the sweatshops, you may want to tell their bleeding hearts to wake up their slothful brains and go talk to the people that they want to "help." And they may hear in reply: "Give us more sweatshops!"