Ltd responsibilities: corporations’ ‘ethics’

Nice one, Fabio. Get in there son!‘ — that’s my favourite quote from last week, shouted by a football fan at England Manager, Fabio Capello, who clearly didn’t understand a word of it. It’s a good phrase, not just for its relentless, cheerful colloquialism and optimism in the face of overwhelming Italianicity (is that a word?), but because it’s so open to good old British sarcasm.

For instance, if I shouted something similar at Phil Wyatt, Chief Executive of ‘travel company’, XL Leisure, you’d get it. XL went into administration last week, without much warning, leaving thousands of their customers stranded overseas, and others, many about to embark on wedding or honeymoon journeys, bitterly disappointed. XL was reportedly still taking bookings (and money) the night before they were shut down. Nice one, Phil. Get in there!’

In an interview on TV, Phil Wyatt apparently came close to tears. I hope this doesn’t come across as harsh, but boo-hoo. Suck it up, Wyatt, you big sissy. You’re not the one who’s been stiffed. You’re the one who kept taking bookings. So, ‘sit down, shut up,’ as Arsenal fans might say.

I know. Not very Christian. Where’s the grace? Here it is. If I were King (and if ‘King’ meant an absolute monarch, the kind lefties like me pretend we disapprove of), I would not have Mr Wyatt executed. See? Grace.

I would, however, put him in jail. Not out of spite. Everybody makes mistakes. But on principle, if he could not come up with the cash to pay back every customer. Unreasonable? No worries. Phil can borrow from his mum. Just like his former customers will have to.

All very heartless, I know. I just find it hard to sympathise with CEOs of big, disgraced corporations. Nobody forced them to be incompetent/dishonest/useless/greedy. Nobody put a gun to their head and told them they had to take a job that meant they had to think first of shareholder profits, above workers, customers, the environment or the world. But let’s be fair. That’s the way the capitalist world works today. So I would go after the shareholders too.

‘What?!’ I hear some cry in indignant horror, spilling their brandy and getting cigar-ash on the carpet, ‘But, shareholders cannot be expected to take responsibility for the companies in which they invest!’ And why not? Does anyone have the right to make money, merely by having money to spare and invest and not face any risk except losing some of that money? When you consider that legally, a limited liability company (even the term reeks of responsibility shirking to me – it’s odd that old-fashioned Tories don’t take a harder line on it), a corporation, has one primary function and that is to make money for its shareholders, it makes sense. CEOs and management are just serving the shareholders, often faithfully. As long as these co-owners and shot-callers can either refuse to care or choose to ignore what is done in their name it will carry on. Laws will be broken, workers will be mistreated, the public will be misled and only wrists will be slapped.

I have no idea if XL behaved illegally. But I think they behaved immorally, like so many corporations do. If, as Christians, we want to see this world which is so dominated by ultra-powerful corporations become a better place, we need to radically reassess our attitude to corporations and our responsibilities in relating to them. Stronger controls, heavier punishments for wrongdoing, and a drive towards personal, human accountability would be a start. The question is whether we care enough to get involved and whether we have chosen which master we serve.

This clip is from a film that will change your life. I would highly recommend you watch it and get hold of the full film.

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