When John Cadbury first went into business in 1824, he did so firmly rooted in one place, and that place was Birmingham. The societal benefits that he and his brother produced have outlived their confectionary creations, and indeed themselves.
Today the Bournville housing estate, built by the Cadbury brothers to provide their workers with high quality, low-cost housing, remains one the best places to live in the UK. As John said at the time “If the country is a good place to live in, why not to work in?”, and he set about making sure it would be, by providing his employees with days off, pension plans, unemployment benefits and much more besides.
Two hundred years on, the Cadbury foundation remains committed to the Birmingham area and its people and are willing to put their money where their mouth is. Today, James Cadbury, who is John’s great-great-great-grandson, runs the Love Cocoa company, which manufactures in the UK, and plants a tree every time you buy a bar of their chocolate. Though the spirit of Cadbury lives on through the deeds of their progeny and Love Cocoa, the Cadbury company itself exists today in name only.
In 2009, the American conglomerate Kraft launched a hostile takeover of Cadbury, and immediately thereafter set about closing the British Keynsham plant and relocating production from Ireland and New Zealand to China and Mexico.
In 1862, the Yorkshiremen Henry Isaac Rowntree and his brother Joseph first became chocolatiers, just as the Cadbury’s had done before them. They founded the model village of New Earswick for their employees, replete with football and rugby pitches, a swimming pool, tennis courts and cricket grounds.
By 1896, Rowntree employees enjoyed an eight-hour workday, by 1906 a pension scheme, and in 1923 they were eligible for participation in a profit-sharing plan. John’s son, Seebohm, used his wealth to conduct the now-famous York Studies, which shaped and influenced David Lloyd George’s Liberal reforms.
But in 1988, after the takeover of Rowntree’s by Nestlé, thousands of jobs were cut, and factories closed. Despite their commitment to honour the city of York and the Rowntree heritage, Nestlé has steadily began offshoring and besmirching that legacy, taking jobs from York and sending them to Hamburg and beyond.
Cadburys and Rowntree were not islands peeking above the degradations of Victorian industrial life but were emblematic of the philanthropic spirit of the time.
They were joined in their efforts by William Hesketh Lever and his model village of Port Sunlight, which he built on the Wirral for his soap factory workers. In Bradford Sir Titus Salt built bathhouses, a hospital, a concert hall, a laboratory, and a school for his workers. Edward Akroyd built two villages to support his manufacturing enterprises and formed the Yorkshire penny bank to help his workers create savings and was so beloved that some 15,000 mourners attended his funeral.
These men were the elites of the industrial world, and much of their generosity was born out of naked self-interest, no doubt. In an era which predated globalisation, offshoring was cost-prohibitive. It was good business sense to make sure that the workers upon whom your profits depended were in good health, good houses and sufficiently well-educated enough to operate your machinery.
The social provisions of the state were in those times thin, and any forward-thinking entrepreneur knew that it would be incumbent upon themselves to fulfil their worker’s basic needs. A limited state, in a pre-globalised world, with an added dash of Christian morality, lent itself to ethical business.
Far from being rooted in place, they are owned by shareholders who are often domiciled in Monaco, or the Cayman Islands, or Luxemburg.
Formula 1 teams, headquartered in Britain, alongside other automotive and vehicular specialists like JCB, all have a stake in the land, factories on the ground, and workers on the front lines who moved with rapid pace to build respirators and ventilators. It was Burberry who made our PPE in the North East, while Nike and Adidas were nowhere to be seen.
But these often-heroic efforts are exceptions to the otherwise pervasive and exploitative behaviour of the modern corporate class. When schools were shut, and the Government were bungling the distribution of laptops to the disadvantaged, What could be said of Amazon’s efforts to chip into the national effort, against a disease which killed hundreds of thousands of their customers?
The corporations who predominate in this country are not great oaks entrenched in our earth, but tumbleweeds which pass with indifference, dumping their products blithely. Their interest is not in the good of the nation, or her people, rather their bottom lines. And in this globalised world, there are always new and emerging markets to fence products, and impoverished countries to take their jobs. The responsibility of the corporation is now foremost to its shareholders. The notion that Facebook could be patriotic, seems farcical.
The twenty-first century has seen profits privatised and losses socialised. Companies who are entirely dependent on state education, infrastructure, and health provisions, now scramble to dodge tax by any means necessary.
Let’s give the corporate class the benefit of the doubt and put it down to human nature. Let’s assume that they will do whatever they can get away with. Should we now assume that gainful employment can simply no longer support a family, increase social mobility, or purchase a house?
Why should the taxpayer foot the bill by way of tax credits because of your poverty pay? Is it right that couples can ill afford to start a family on actual wages?
Ultimately the enablers of these parasitic behaviours have been successive governments the last fifty years. While Labour claims to be pro-worker, their ideological commitment to uncontrolled migration is exactly the kind of policy the oligarchs would love as a means to further drive down their already pitiful wage rates.
The Conservative Party is equally galivanting around the world doing trade deals that jeopardise the continued longevity and viability of the few truly British producers still standing.
Neither of the main parties sees the wisdom in wedding-controlled migration with ethical production and regulation. And while they might occasionally offer up one of these things, this is not sufficient to put an end to the corporate degradation of our social realm.
There are still good companies, of course. Nissan, when it set up its Sunderland plant, employed local workers, as is the Japanese way. Those workers now operate one of the most efficient car plants in Europe, and Nissan have shown their thanks by doubling down on their commitment to Sunderland, vowing to build a new Gigafactory there, and in doing so, creating a further 1650 jobs.
But the predominant spirit is not that of Nissan or Burberry, rather the proclivity to use agency workers, zero-hour contracts, to outsource wherever possible, and import immigrant labour where not. That this is allowed to happen, and the consequences of it being allowed, fundamentally land at the feet of our toothless political class, who for one reason or another, are content to allow corporations to profiteer and run roughshod over the obligations that their privileged position demands.
It’s time corporations be reminded of their duties. Collecting the estimated up to £120 Billion in unpaid corporation tax would be a good place to start.