Powell makes the important point that the discussion of sweatshops is about much more than just economic efficiency. Here’s Matt Zwolinski’s paper “Sweatshops, Choice, and Exploitation,” which defends the thesis that “a sweatshop worker’s choice to accept the conditions of his or her employment is morally significant.” I’ve heard it argued that we should oppose sweatshops because we are to treat others as more than mere means to our ends. As I read Zwolinski, that obligation is satisfied when we respect sweatshop workers’ choices.
The fundamental problem here is poverty, and restricting workers’ choices by closing sweatshops is not a solution. Indeed, the economist David R. Henderson has written that you don’t help people by taking away from them what they perceive to be the best of a lot of lousy alternatives. You help them by giving them more opportunities–opportunities like the ones that what we deride as “sweatshops” provide.