Documentary Highlights Child Labor Horrors

For an estimated 246 million children around the world, life is nothing but work. Considered cheap, hardworking and easy to control, these children routinely face brutal conditions, long hours and demanding physical labor.

Two American filmmakers, Len Morris and Robin Romano, spent the past seven years and much of their own money documenting the atrocities of child labor. Their journey took them from gravel quarries in northern India to fishing platforms off of Indonesia's Sumatra island to a Kenyan coffee plantation to vegetable farms in Batesville, Texas.

Despite the fact that 155 nations have ratified a United Nations convention banning the worst forms of child labor, the practice continues to flourish.

"They were and basically are modern slaves," says Morris. "We wanted to answer the question, why would something like this exist in the 20th century? Why would we be using children for work that animals should be doing?"

Dangers, From Silicosis to Drowning

To make their film -- called "Stolen Childhoods" -- Morris and Romano risked their own safety repeatedly.

"Over the years, there's been a body count," Romano says, "I mean, I've had, you know, my nose broken, I've had both my arms broken."

"People are not happy when you want to expose this type of abuse," he says. "But you know what? People are not happy when you want to expose any type of abuse."

In the gravel quarries of Orissa, India, Morris and Romano encountered a world of innocence lost: pre-teen girls suffering from malnutrition and developing skeletal deformities and silicosis of the lungs. They were being forced to carry half their body weight on their heads while breathing in rock dust in 120-degree heat.

In the waters off the island of Sumatra, children work on fishing platforms called "jermals" for three months at a time to harvest shrimp.

Morris and Romano lived with children on the crafts, where they learned their stories and recorded the dangers they faced.

"The incidence of death on jermals for children is very high," Romano says. "They fall off, they're blown off, they drown. You know, some of them are killed by the foreman because they're cruel, hideous people."

The filmmakers say that, aside from being an economical choice, children are a preferred work force because they can be exploited and bullied with little complaint.

A Problem in America as Well

But child labor isn't restricted to the developing world. Here in the United States, near the Mexican border, children of all ages work with their migrant parents in vegetable fields.

Perhaps as many as 800,000 kids pick vegetables by hand in America. Sixty-five percent drop out of school before their high school graduation.

"There's a chance that when you have fried onions on your hamburger or slice an onion for your evening salad, that a child has been involved in that harvest," says Morris.

The young farm workers who pick those onions earn about 60 cents for a 60-pound bag -- a penny per pound, Morris says.

The filmmakers acknowledge that many consumers are unaware of the role of child labor in the products they buy. But they are hoping "Stolen Childhoods" will draw attention to the issue.

"That's precisely why we made the film," Romano says. "Because so many people don't know and this is a problem of such extraordinary magnitude."