By Their Fruits You Shall Know Them: Can Catholics Make a Difference for Justice in the Business World?

By O'Connor, Dennis | U.S. Catholic, May 2004 | Go to article overview

By Their Fruits You Shall Know Them: Can Catholics Make a Difference for Justice in the Business World?


O'Connor, Dennis, U.S. Catholic


In the dining room of a Guatemala City guest house, a group of Americans is clustered around a big map of Guatemala. They are watching an animated representative from the union syndicate Unsitragua jabbing his right forefinger at points along the country's Pacific coast.

"There, there, and all along here," he says, North American multinational companies, including Cincinnati-based Chiquita Brands, are operating banana plantations that their corporate officials claim are independently run small enterprises. The union rep complains that Unsitragua is not allowed near these plantations, but if they are run by multinational companies, the union has the right to try to organize the workers.

While the visitors from the United States--a delegation of teachers, business-people, and church employees from the Archdiocese of Cincinnati--sip tea, the union coordinator studies each of their faces. Speaking through a translator, he tells the group that if companies are engaged in these kinds of operations, they are bypassing Guatemalan laws limiting foreign companies' ownership of farms by setting up local "fronts" for the corporation.

"I hope you will tell the people of Cincinnati that this is going on down here," the representative says. "Ask Chiquita if they are doing this. They will listen to you."

Michael Gable, director of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati's Missions Office, nods thanks to the man and then explains to the delegation the history of the long-standing economic relationship between Cincinnati and Central America. Coffee beans and bananas grown in Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, and parts of Mexico have helped to fuel the engines of such venerated icons of American capitalism as consumer-goods giant Procter & Gamble, fruit company Chiquita Brands International, and the nation's largest grocer, the Korger Company--all based in Cincinnati.

Gradually it dawns on the group that much of the stable and diverse economy that has provided relatively high-paying jobs and other benefits to the people of the greater Cincinnati region has been built on the backs of Central American and other Third World workers.

The delegation had made its way to Guatemala City as part of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati's initiative "Global Solidarity: Focus Central America." Launched in 1998, the five-year program was directed by a group that included a former Chiquita executive, local social activists, instructors at Cincinnati's Xavier University, and staff of the archdiocese's mission and social-action offices.

The initiative has provided an intriguing experiment in involving Catholic business leaders in examining how principles of Catholic social teaching might be applied in practical ways by multinational corporations.

Two of its aims have been to create awareness among consumers about the plight of Central American workers and to promote greater ethical sensitivity at Chiquita, Procter & Gamble, and Kroger. Church leaders have talked with company bosses about workers' rights. Procter & Gamble, which produces Folgers and Mill-stone coffees, has been urged to purchase fair-trade coffee. The dialogue has also explore how globalization has forced workers from the same Central American countries where these companies have banana and coffee plantations to emigrate to Cincinnati.

The members of the Guatemala delegation as well as others involved in the initiative were brought to ponder their place in this economic universe: What responsibilities do Catholic business executives have to seek the greater good, even when it may be in conflict with achieving financial goals or other corporate objectives? What can individuals do to effect change, to make sure that their own companies are doing what they can to provide for the poor?

Do Catholics have an obligation within their secular vocations to place the church's call for social justice in front of other demands? …

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