What it is
"Sweatshop" generally refers to a factory that demands long hours of its workers while offering poverty-level wages and demeaning working conditions. (In Latin America, "maquiladora" is the term often used for a sweatshop.) In these factories, things like restroom breaks may be strictly monitored. Workers may be treated harshly. Union organizing is discouraged, and those who attempt it are routinely fired. Children are often employed in sweatshops, as they are willing to work for even less than adults and are less likely to agitate for fair wages or better working conditions.
Why do they do it?
Rich-world consumers aren't given information about the conditions of the workers who make the products they purchase. Many of them may not care to know--they are more concerned with the cost of the item. Those really making money on these goods, however, are the corporations and their shareholders. Often less than one percent of the final cost of a product is paid to the worker--the rest is for shipping, marketing, superstar endorsements.and profit. The annual wage of the average CEO of a US corporation? Over $5 million--or $2,000 per hour. Typical pay for a worker in an off-shore factory? 15-25 cents an hour.
Companies in the richer parts of the world can make more money by "outsourcing" their work off-shore (to a poorer part of the world). A product made in a less-developed nation can typically cost 10-20 times less to produce than if it were made in the United States. Another somewhat hidden gain is that other nations may have less stringent environmental laws, so that the cost of doing business there is less--although the cost to their ecosystem and to their people may in the long run be high.
Over a billion people in our world earn less than $1 a day, so it's easy to see why they might be looking for any kind of work that they can get. In addition, about half the world's people never finish high school, so their options for employment are limited. Some people think that the richer countries are content to let millions of people remain undereducated--it provides a ready recruitment source for low paying factory jobs. Young women, who represent 80 percent of sweatshop workers, are especially vulnerable--a sweatshop job may be their ticket out of a rural community where there is little opportunity fo them, except to have babies and carry wood and water. Yet, this "ticket" doesn't guarantee a living wage or humane treatment.
What you can do
Noe Urbina, 33 years old, president of farmers' cooperative in Cuscatlina, El Salvador
"I worked for four months in a maquiladora. It is a different world than here in the countryside. There are strict hours; there are no rest breaks once you begin work. No one talks to you respectfully--the supervisor just swore at me. You aren't allowed to talk to your co-workers. If I complained, he said, "There's the door. There are 20-30 more who will work for less than you." After deductions, I made about $103 a month for over 200 hours of work. If we tried to organize as laborers in the maquila, we'd be out the door. There's no dignity in work like that! Now I'm back working here in the countryside. I have time for my family and to join with other campesinos (farmers) in trying to improve our lives. I am proud and I can breathe."