Under the Heel of Business
In 1997 I was part of a group of U.S. women traveling in the mountains of Haiti to meet with women from the village of Medor. We were exploring the establishment of partnerships between U.S. sponsors and Haitian women interested in starting small businesses. Each woman spoke of selling salt, oil, thread, flour, or other commodities that were part of daily life.
When asked why she wanted to start a small business, a young Haitian woman gave an answer I will never forget. "I want to start this business so I can feed my children a meal each day," she said. In the stunned silence, we asked what she does now. "Now I feed my children a meal two or three times a week. The rest of the time they chew sugar cane so they will not feel hungry." Any attempt to understand "business ethics" must be anchored in this woman's reality.
Since the end of World War II, the world has seen the local economies of individual nations transformed into an increasingly interwoven fabric: global finance and a global economy. We read about corporate mergers, takeovers, buy-outs, and conglomerates. Success is measured by the billions of dollars "earned" by a corporation and its shareholders, or by a country's gross national product, or by the inflation rate. All of this affects the complex relationships between companies and the countries in which they operate.
Yet rarely do we read about the effects of economic globalization on individual countries, or on groups of people within a country. This lack of attention to individuals and communities serves to mask many of the global economy's negative effects.
In the United States, the original charters under which companies were granted incorporation gave a company the power to function as a "person" under the law. This was given in return for the company acting as a responsible member of its community. These charters of incorporation made possible two things: the legal protection of board members from individual responsibility for corporate actions, and the partial sale of the corporation to partial owners or "shareholders."
What has strained the legal relationship between corporations and the communities in which they operate is the change in the way corporations see themselves. Since the 1960s, corporations have shifted from a local community focus to a national, international, multinational, and transnational outlook. In this process, the links by which corporations relate to local communities have often been severed, destroying the mutually beneficial bond that once united workers, managers, and markets within a community.
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