For lunch today I decided to pick up Chinese food from a very highly regarded restaurant in my area. As I approached the entrance, I noticed a group of people protesting outside. They held signs and chanted about how the restaurant employs sweatshop labor in sweatshop conditions. Though the restaurant happens to be a very nice one and therefore made it hard for me to believe it could qualify as a sweatshop environment, I mentally yielded the protesters the benefit of the doubt since I had not actually ever entered the kitchen. But by the time I walked into the restaurant, I had already thought of some serious problems with the protest.
The first problem was the irony inherent in the fact that it was protesters protesting and not the employees of the restaurant. Why is this ironic? If the employees found the conditions in the restaurant to be so horrific... they wouldn't work there! Don't walk an old lady across the street if she doesn't want to cross the street! Notice, this is not my attempt to make a statement about how the working conditions must be pleasant at the restaurant, it is to make a statement that employment at this restaurant must be the employees' next best option above all else, otherwise they would be working elsewhere. By protesting at the restaurant, the protesters are potentially risking the employment of the individuals they are supposedly trying to help.
The second problem is even more ironic than the first. Even if we grant that the working conditions are that of sweatshop labor, and that the employees are somehow miserable but choose to stay even if alternative options are better, what are the consequences of this protest? The protesters are trying to raise recognition of the conditions at the restaurant. By pointing this out, they hope that the restaurant will either improve conditions, or have customers choose to stop frequenting the restaurant in disgust to teach the restaurant a lesson. If the restaurant improves conditions, this might very well cost an amount of money that forces the restaurant to fire some of the employees. Are the fired employees now better off? If, on the other hand, customers stop eating at this restaurant, that means less of the good produced by this restaurant (food) is desired, and less labor input is necessary to produce it. Once again, some of the employees could get fired.
This analysis holds true for all protests that take place outside businesses. The well-being of the people the protests are supposedly trying to help is directly endangered by the protests themselves. In fact, the most beneficial act that an individual could do on behalf of an unhappy employee at a business, is to encourage more people to buy what the business produces. Only when demand for the business' product goes up is there a chance that the working conditions will get improved (or the employees will get paid more, or more employees will get hired, etc.).