No one protected this 15-year-old migrant worker who fell 50 feet to his death from a roof in Alabama where he was laying down shingles, according to a New York Times investigation. The Times also reported on a 14-year-old food delivery migrant worker who was killed when hit by a car while on his bike at a Brooklyn intersection; a 16-year-old migrant who was crushed under a 35-ton tractor-scraper outside Atlanta; and a 14-year-old migrant youth killed in a landscaping job.

What are these kids doing working dangerous jobs? Sending money back home — to Guatemala, Honduras, Venezuela and other parts of impoverished Latin America. We’re talking about thousands of migrant children coming into the United States without their parents. They’re coming in record numbers, living with sponsors who may or may not keep tabs on them, and many have worked on products for big-brand corporations such as Whole Foods, Walmart, J. Crew, Frito-Lay, Ford and General Motors.

Migrant pre-teens and teens don’t work on the payroll of these big brands, and a number of the brands don’t even know under-age kids are working punishing shifts and jobs in their workplaces. Contractors and staffing agencies hire the youth eager to make money to send to their families sometimes thousands of miles away. It’s not unusual to find them working nights after school with no safety training or safety equipment. Middlemen dipping into this shadow workforce of vulnerable youth are often not thinking “safety first” if at all.

Said one Florida middle school teacher in the Times article: “They should not be working 12-hour days, but it’s happening here.”


The numbers keep climbing

About two-thirds of all unaccompanied migrant children ended up working full-time, caseworkers interviewed by the Times estimated. Last year, the number of unaccompanied minors entering the U.S. increased to 130,000, three times what it was five years ago. In the past two years, 250,000 unaccompanied minors have come into the country.

Of course, there are child labor laws on the books, and federal laws that bar minors from a long list of dangerous jobs such as roofing, meat processing and commercial baking. Except on farms, children under16 are not supposed to work for more than three hours or after 7 pm on school days.

The Labor Department, charged with finding and punishing child labor violations, is so short of inspectors in a dozen states understaffed offices can barely keep up with complaints, let along open original investigations. Companies often ignore young faces in their back rooms or factory floors. Schools, meanwhile, often decline to report apparent labor violations believing it will hurt children more than help. And the Department of Health and Human Services… well, as an official with another federal agency involved in immigration cases told the Times, “as the government, we’re turned a blind eye to labor trafficking.” Willful neglect all around. Compounded by the breakdown of systems meant to protect children.


Dirty, dangerous work

The result: 13-year-olds working in meat plants; 12-year-olds working at suppliers for Hyundai and Kia; a 13-year-old works 12-hour shifts, six days a week, at an egg farm; a 14-year-old working on a dairy farm crushes his hand in a milking machine in the first month on the job; children tending giant ovens to make Chewy and Nature Valley granola bars and pack bags of Lucky Charms and Cheetos; children sawing plants of wood on overnight shifts in South Dakota; migrant children cleaning a slaughterhouse run by JBS, the world’s largest meat processor. Labor inspectors responding to a tip found 22 Spanish-speaking children working for the company hired to clean a JBS plant. JBS told the Times it had been unaware that children were scouring the facility each night. JBS fired the cleaning contractor. Other big brands said they were scrutinizing their supply chains for labor law violations.

Hundreds of thousands of migrant youths are trapped and exploited. Sent off many times by destitute families who put intense pressure on sons and daughters to send home money. Taken in by poorly-vetted sponsors in the U.S. who in some cases have turned housing migrant children into a business – charging them for smuggling fees, rent and living expenses. One sponsor sent threatening text messages to a 13-year-old: “Don’t mess with me,” the sponsor wrote. “You don’t mean anything to me.” Federal agencies charged with oversight of migrant children are understaffed, overwhelmed, and often just pass the buck. An HHS hotline set up for minors to call in problems has operators pass reports to law enforcement and other local agencies because, HHS told the Times, it does not have authority to remove children from homes. Law enforcement often fails to follow up. OSHA has fined a few companies, but mostly does its usual hit-or-miss field work with limited resources. A safety net with many holes.

Many of the youth interviewed by the Times are older than their years. Independent. Determined. Resourceful. Tough – many coming back from injuries to work again. Hardened by disappointments, scams, and incompetence. Carrying the responsibility of supporting families, sometimes demanding families, back home.

When no one is watching your back — and your safety — you better hard, determined and resilient.