At Newsong Church in Irvine on Sunday, clothing manufacturing director Michael Lew had a strange request for his fellow congregants: Wear your t-shirts inside out.
In honor of United Nation's International Migrant Day, Lew hoped the fashion statement would raise awareness of the 400 million migrant workers worldwide who provide everyday items for Americans.
For years, Lew was known in the clothing manufacturing industry for his shrewd business practices. With an eye on the bottom line, he aimed to get his clothing cheaper and faster in order to beat out the competition.
But everything changed for Lew six years ago on one of his frequent trips to a factory in China that produced clothing for his line. He got to know one of his workers and she invited him to visit her home. Lew recalls stepping into a 10 by 10 house to find eight people living inside, with only one bed. The factory worker and her husband were the only ones in the house to have jobs: Their children, relatives, and parents depended on their income.
But still, the paychecks from the 12-hour days weren't enough. The kids had to go onto the streets to solicit money, and the parents had to find extra jobs to supplement their income.
"[At first] I thought I was giving them a job and they should be grateful," Lew said, but once he saw the poverty of his workers, "I started to change my way, charging higher prices [for clothing] and paying fair wages."
In China, 250 million people leave their homes in rural areas for factories in larger cities, where they earn an average of $0.44 per hour to work over 75 hours a week. As parents go out to work, they leave about 58 million children behind in rural communities, creating a generation of children growing up without parental guidance and little access to education.
Lew wanted to do more. He started meeting with different Christian organizations that reach out to migrant workers, providing better access to education and healthcare, helping sex trafficking victims, and bringing families together.
"The key is working with organizations that have been there for years, that are stationed there, and will continue providing for them after we leave," Lew said. In 2009, he created Faces Behind the Label (FBTL), a nonprofit organization that spreads awareness of the plight of migrant workers. Lew started a self-sustaining business selling premium t-shirts where the proceeds go toward four well-established organizations working with Chinese migrant workers.
To date, FBTL has donated $80,000 to help the organizations build a community center for migrant workers, a new dorm for victims of human trafficking, and a mobile classroom for migrant children. The organization also sent over supplies for a migrant family development organization and short-term mission teams to help the organizations.
Meanwhile, in the United States, FBTL is building up their customer base for their t-shirts, which it sells for $8 individually and $5 in bulk. A large portion of the shirts are purchased by wholesale sellers who print and sell their own labels on the shirts, and shirt screen printers who print custom designs for clients on the shirts. The Los Angeles AIDS walk used Faces t-shirts last year, along with a number of church groups and conferences. Faces averaged sales of 20,000 to 25,000 a month in the past year.
While most of the shirts were produced in fair-trade factories in Peru and Bangladesh, 30,000 orders a year were sent to FBTL's new initiative - a prototype "Factory in a Box." A Factory in a Box is a shipping container placed in rural communities that holds all the necessary equipment for a group of workers to create apparel. These mobile factories lets workers work close to home so that families can stay together.
The urban migration breaks up families as parents leave their children with relatives, friends, or by themselves to work in factories. Studies show that children left behind in the villages are often victims of crime and suffer psychological and behavioral problems caused by long-term separation from their parents. Many of these children drop out of school and join gangs.
So far only one Factory in a Box exists, but Lew hopes that one day these Factories will produce all of the Faces t-shirts. Christian nonprofits in other Chinese cities and in Laos and Cambodia also are interested in having their own Factories. Once the boxes are set up, FBTL will train missionaries in the area to take over the factories, creating jobs for locals, profits to spend on community development, and an avenue for missionaries to build relationships.
For now, Lew is taking it slow, making sure not to overload the Factory in a Box with too many orders. The prototype has been up and running for 5 months so far, and Lew plans to test it out for a year and a half to make sure production is up to the American demand before creating more.
"I'm in the workforce and it's not just stories I hear about, it's people I know, and their faces are behind every single label we buy, and if we could connect them to [consumers] it could be a really amazing movement."