In the 21st Century; Who is My Neighbour?

“Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Was the advice Jesus gave to the expert in the law. He then told the story of the Good Samaritan and asked at the end; “Which of these three do you think was a neighbour?” The correct answer, “The one who had mercy on him”, was followed by an exhortation from Jesus to go and do likewise.

It’s a popular story repeated time and time again in churches and schools. However, many on hearing the story are distracted by images of dusty roads, donkeys and adobe inns, a story frozen in time? In the 2014 general election some newspapers and commentators insisted immigration was the key issue. One candidate even stated he would not want Romanian neighbours and cited tiredness in his later, necessary, apology.

This issue has been perennial since the story was told, 2000 years ago. Had there been candidates throughout the ages, tired ones could have just as easily erred, decrying Romans, Danes, Saxons, Normans, Huguenots as neighbours, and in protestant areas, Catholics and vice-versa. The sentiment with respect to having Jewish neighbours is well documented. It is only decades since newsagents carried advertisements blatantly stating, ‘no blacks, no Irish, not pets and no children’.

Such negative attitudes can be openly debated and through appropriate education and democratic processes ameliorated, leading to a sensible and meaningful approach to immigration being developed and implemented. Currently there is probably not a country in the world free of the same debate (where debates are permitted).

There is, however, a much more subtle and challenging modern development in the need for good neighbourliness not widely discussed or understood. The United Kingdom once boasted a thriving and world leading manufacturing industry providing employment to great swathes of the population and demanding skills and knowledge, thereby providing motivation for learning and a deep pride in the dignity of the process. It spawned not only manufacturing industries but also successful individual and family concerns such as Marks & Spencer’s, Boots the Chemist and Thomas Cook’s travel agents.

For various reasons, too many and too complex to go into now, the UK’s manufacturing and household name companies have had to re-organise, restructure and in some cases rebrand. It is part of the evolution of industry, trade and commerce and the clock cannot be turned back despite waves of nostalgia sweeping the nation. Change is forced by a continually evolving and globalising world and it cannot countenance patriotism. Investment to sustain and create employment in any given venue may now originate in any or many countries.

For example Walgreens, a U.S. drugs company, finally acquired full control of Boots the chemists. Started by John Boot in 1849 it, anecdotally, had a good reputation for customer service and employee welfare. Walgreen, on the other hand, were forced to agree in 2008 to stop altering prescriptions to facilitate improper inflated billing to Medicaid but also threatened to leave Medicaid. In 2009 they wanted to stop providing health insurance coverage to the poor in Delaware over reimbursement rates. It lost a $24 million law suit in respect of its discriminatory practices against the African-Americans it employed and in 2011 settled after being accused of improperly sacking a diabetic employee for eating a package of food to stop a hypoglycaemic attack without permission and their practices have been particularly exploitative in Puerto Rico. In 2011 they pulled out of Express Scripts, a prescription benefits manager. The Hispanic Christian Leadership and Racial Equality council asked them to reconsider, making it obvious who stood to lose most from this decision. A new deal was struck between Walgreens and Express Scripts in 2012.

Another lawsuit emerged from objections to their overcharging practices by the Union Food and Commercial Workers Union and Employers Midwest Health Benefits. Further shenanigans accrued from practices connected to addicts and drug dealers causing a ‘run-in’ with the Drug Enforcement Administration.  As well as settling a series of dishonest ‘overpricing’ and racial discrimination cases Walgreen pharmacies, like many in the U.S.A., sell tobacco products alongside pharmaceuticals. Its defence is that it can offer advice to customers on how to stop smoking.

Meanwhile, in the U.K. the Pharmaceutical Defence Association concluded that their policies here; ‘will have a fundamental impact on employees due to the substantial economic loss caused in some cases. Further the reductions in premium rates of pay may also have a discriminatory impact on part-time employees and/or women.’ Boots’ customers and staff are now as anecdotally unhappy as they were happy some time ago.

Meanwhile an equally quintessentially British company, Jaguar cars, is now owned by Tata from India, just one of their many acquisitions across Europe where manufacturing has flagged in recent years. An initial reaction by many in the United Kingdom might be that America, once colonised from here, is our social equal while India, once ruled by us, is our social inferior. Thus, some may feel an indignation about Tata’s success that they would not instinctively feel about Walgreen’s encroachment.

Tata was founded in 1868 by Jamsetji Tata, a Zoroastrian. Nehru said of him, “When you have to give the lead in action, in ideas – a lead which does not fit in with the very climate of opinion – that is true courage, physical or mental or spiritual … and it is this type of courage and vision that Jamsetji Tata showed.” What Nehru meant by ‘not fit with the climate of opinion’ was his focussing, in 1868, on employee welfare and customer service.

Jamseti Tata, himself said, “There is one kind of charity common enough among us… It is that patchwork philanthropy which clothes the ragged, feeds the poor, and heals the sick. I am far from decrying the noble spirit which seeks to help a poor or suffering fellow being… [However] what advances a nation or a community is not so much to prop up its weakest and most helpless members, but to lift up the best and the most gifted, so as to make them of the greatest service to the country.”

Tata was a Cadbury, a Rowntree and Robert Owen of India and as his company spreads world-wide it tries to maintain those founding principles. Their current mission statement includes; ‘to be admired by our customers, employees and business partners from the experience and value they enjoy from being with us’. It goes on to laud ‘inclusion, integrity, accountability, concern for the environment and passion for innovation.’ Like many I could easily have taken this to be euphemistic as many mission statements are, but, convinced, I recently  waxed lyrical about Tata to someone at a social function and when I finished my enthusiastic exposition he said, ‘I work for Tata in Coventry and everything you have just said is absolutely true. It’s a wonderful company to work for and we have regular discussion groups to consider what we are doing and the philosophy behind it.’

Walgreen came across the bruised and battered Boots by the roadside and took it to the inn to recover. Tata did the same with Jaguar. Ultimately, however, which one turned out to be the true neighbour?  The Bible account implies that Jesus sensed the expert in law already knew the answer but hoped for an alternative, less challenging to him. It may well be that in that respect, nothing has changed.

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