5 Questions with: Charla Henley, RC junior & sweatshop researcher

by rcnewsblog on January 25, 2013

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Working long hours with low pay. Never having vacations or sick days. These are the things that Charla Henley learned about the conditions of sweatshops in Mexico when she studied these factories this past year for a summer scholars research project.

Henley presented her findings in September and received honors in her major. This semester, she is studying abroad in Southern Mexico, where she will be able to further explore sweatshops.

“I live in a first world country, and we take a lot for granted,” said Henley, a junior at Roanoke College who is majoring in both Spanish and business. Through her research, Henley has been able to gain a new perspective about the people of Mexico.

“I wanted to take a look at where I was going to be [studying] and also combine my business and Spanish majors in order to utilize that information as well,” said Henley.

Time is not something that Henley has to spare. She keeps a busy campus schedule. Before she left Roanoke College, she worked for the Campus Activities Board, she was a community service coordinator, a resident adviser, and at times, she helped out with handling for Rooney, the College’s mascot. You may have seen her around campus proudly wearing her letters from her sorority, Alpha Sigma Alpha.

We caught up with Henley to discuss her research before she left for Mexico.

RC News Blog: Tell us about your research.

Charla Henley: The research that I did was based on maquiladoras, which are factories along the northern border of Mexico. Basically, what I was studying was why they cannot just be shut down. So much of what I studied was based on how these sweatshops affect the economy in the U.S. and other countries worldwide. I also studied the conditions for the workers. I just wanted to look at how bad they really were and how these workers live. The title of my project was “Maquiladoras, Saving Grace or Exploitations.”  I wanted to see if the factories were exploiting people or saving them.

RC News Blog: What did you learn with your research?

Charla Henley: Ultimately, I found that [the factories] are a necessary evil. If you were to evaporate these factories, there would be millions of people out of work with nowhere to go besides prostitution, drugs or violence. They just don’t have other opportunities to fall back on. Also there would be indirect effects with the United States and other countries that use Mexico to build their products.  However the conditions are questionable. The hours are long. Most people work at least between eight to 10 hours a day, if not much more than that. They work for about $50 a week. It is usually right below what they need. They would work for about $50 a week, and their expenses would be about $60 a week. So they are still below what they need, but they get by. Multiple people usually live in one house. It has been eye opening.

RC News Blog: What did you learn by doing research with one of your professors?

Charla Henley: Working with Dr. José Bañuelos Montes [a Roanoke Spanish professor] so closely was really helpful to me. It helped my Spanish speaking skills, because we spoke together in Spanish and English. My comprehension also improved, because I read and wrote in both Spanish and English during the summer. I really appreciated working with him. Working with a professor that closely is a once in a lifetime experience. You don’t hear other people from other schools say, “I am working with so and so on this project, and they have a doctorate already.”  It’s just a really unique opportunity that Roanoke College provides. If you are ever given the opportunity to work with a professor that closely then, you should take it. Dr. José Bañuelos Montes is the one who hooked me up with the university where I am going to study abroad, and he suggested people down there to get in contact with.

RC News Blog: While you are in Mexico, how do you plan to continue your research?

Charla Henley: The project that I did over the summer was focused only on two cities, Juarez and Tijuana, which are by far the most dangerous and also the busiest cities in Northern Mexico. I am studying abroad in Southern Mexico. I will be about two hours south of Mexico City. The factories that I will be around are supposedly vastly different from the border factories. There is a Volkswagen factory very close to the school where I will be studying. I am going to try very hard to get a tour if it is safe enough for me to do that and try to take a look at the conditions of that factory in comparison to the factories that I studied over the summer.

RC News Blog: You have mentioned that you might want to continue with this project in graduate school or your senior year. How do you plan to continue this project?

Charla Henley: I definitely think that it would be interesting to dive a little deeper into the difference between the factories along the border versus the heart of Mexico. Also, I am very interested in seeing what can be done to improve them. In my research, I focused mostly on how they are now, what their effect is, their actual condition and things like that. It was difficult for me to just read about these problems and not be able to actually do anything or come up with ideas to better the situation. I think in the future what I would like to do is really try to look at what can be done, how we can solve the issues, and how we can keep the cost low but still give all these people rights.

–By Kayla Fuller ’14

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