In the U.S., sweatshop work represents the very worst sort of the labor--the exploitative, lawless kind that pays pennies for long hours of tedious work in potentially dangerous environments.
For that very reason, Nicholas Kristof's piece on sweatshops in the New York Times is essential reading. Kristof writes from an area in Phnom Penh, where families live atop steamy garbage dumps and prowl among the refuse for plastic that can be recycled for cash (5 cents a pound).
To these families, "a job in a sweatshop is a cherished dream, an escalator out of poverty, the kind of gauzy if probably unrealistic ambition that parents everywhere often have for their children," Kristof writes.
It's a startling piece. The columnist writes that many who work in development believe that the poorest countries would be most helped by expanding their manufacturing base: "But global campaigns against sweatshops make that less likely."
I highly recommend reading the comments, as well, as many seemingly experienced development workers have laid out compelling arguments both for and against the columnist's own.
This comment is a good example:
"As for dumps, I think you underestimate the fact that garbage scavenging, like maquila work, is labor that helps sustain the global economy. There's a reason that the people you met got money for plastic, aluminum, etc. There is a large and very volatile world market for those materials. When the economy boomed (i.e. before August of 2008), scavengers were getting record prices."