Occupational charities step in to support frontline staff in crisis

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Claire Cain was struggling to meet her rent last summer. The 46-year-old bank cashier worked for Santander UK for 11 years before a benign brain tumour, chronic pain and migraines forced her to take leave. Two of her four children moved back home to Dover during the pandemic, adding extra pressure to her finances, just as her 12 months of long-term sick pay ran out.

The single parent said she had no choice but to borrow money from her 24-year-old autistic son before Santander referred her to the Bank Workers Charity (BWC) in June.

“Being a single parent for a little while was hard, but it was harder when I wasn’t getting any pay,” she said. Cain approached the charity expecting to get counselling she could not otherwise afford. Instead, it offered her a £1,500 grant that kept a roof over her head, and helped her apply for disability benefits which she had not received before.

Without the extra cash, Cain said: “I don’t know where I would be, I’d probably be homeless.”

Armed with £82m in reserves, the BWC has been a lifeline for thousands of bank workers like Cain, when job losses, illness, domestic abuse or family tragedies have left them with nowhere else to turn – situations made even worse by the pandemic. It is one of a number of hardship funds set up by occupational groups – sailors, vicars, accountants, actors and musicians, engineers, for example – to provide assistance to members who face destitution.

The BWC was launched by a group of bankers in 1883 as the Bank Clerks’ Orphanage, to support the children of frontline workers who had died or fallen ill. More than 1,000 children were in its care by 1963, but 57 years and a merger later, it is a much smaller operation with a much broader remit.

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Today, its 30 staff connect workers with mental health, addiction and debt management services, crucial during the pandemic.

Bankers have been working overtime for months, sorting out mortgage and credit card holidays for struggling customers, and arranging more than 1.5m government-backed coronavirus business loans. All the while, workers have faced further job insecurity of their own, with Lloyds, The Co-operative Bank, TSB and Virgin Money collectively announcing more than 3,500 job cuts in 2020.

While all bankers are eligible for the BWC’s services, its grant programme – which offers emergency funding into the thousands of pounds – is usually tapped by the lowest-paid in branches and call centres, who struggle to make ends meet despite working for the UK’s largest banks.

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All five of the UK’s largest – NatWest, Barclays, Lloyds, Santander UK and HSBC – told the Observer they paid the national living wage, which is £9.50 per hour and £10.85 in London.

But there is still a yawning gap between the bank’s highest- and lowest-paid staff. A third at Lloyds bank, who were polled in a union survey in 2019, said they were struggling financially. It highlighted the disparity between its worst-paid workers, who earned a minimum of£17,510 in 2019, and the £4.7m pocketed by its outgoing boss António Horta-Osório.

Meanwhile, Cain’s former employer, Santander UK, paid a minimum salary of £16,400 for staff outside London in 2019, 262 times less than the £4.3m paid to its chief executive, Nathan Bostock.

But the BWC said banks’ pay policies were not to blame. “I don’t think it’s necessarily that bank staff are underpaid,” said Paul Barrett, BWC’s head of wellbeing.

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On the contrary, he said, the entire UK had suffered a decade of slow wage growth, and households were paying off extra debt that was more readily available for years before the pandemic. Barrett added that financial strain might actually have been caused by a spouse losing their job, or a failure to secure work under zero-hours contracts.

Although many of BWC’s clients are a world away from the big bonuses and champagne-sipping stereotypes attached to those working in the City, Barrett pointed out that this public perception of bank workers could also make it hard for rank-and-file staff to seek help. “It may mean they take longer, and their financial problems, as a consequence, are worse,” he explained.

Accord union leader Ged Nichols, who represents staff at Lloyds, TSB and Sainsbury’s Bank, praised the BWC for its work but said the longer-term solution was to raise wages.

“Total pay-related rewards for bank executives have far outstripped the progress in rewards for other employees. And staff benefits have been eroded over time, too. Like in so many other industries, the imbalances need to be addressed through wage growth, not through charity,” Nichols said.

Cain believes employers should take greater responsibility for their workers, especially after years of service. “If they looked after their staff a lot better, you wouldn’t have the need to go to a charity for help,” she said.

Commenting on Cain’s case, Santander said it had offered the maximum support given her length of service, including full pay for six months, followed by half pay for the final six months.