Simon Read: Why don't more employers help their struggling staff?

 

A firm in the North-east has decided to take a stand against predatory payday lenders by offering its workers an interest-free advance on their wages if they get into difficulty. The move is designed to keep staff out of the clutches of high-cost credit companies, which target vulnerable people struggling to get by.

The company's boss, Mike Heslop, said he decided to act after reading news reports that payday loan companies have spent more than half a million pounds advertising on children's TV.

He runs Centrex Services, a firm which repairs and maintains business IT equipment. His company employs 160 people. "I was increasingly concerned that external financial pressures may see my staff fall prey to these unscrupulous payday loan lenders," he says.

The idea is a simple but extremely good one. If all firms offered their workers similar interest-free loans, then we could wipe away the need for many to turn to expensive credit companies.

In fact some more enlightened employers do already have similar schemes. The retail giant John Lewis, for instance, has long been recognised as a benign boss. So it's no surprise to learn that the company is at the forefront in looking after staff in financial difficulties. The 81,000 workers can turn to Financial Assistance Committees, which hand out interest-free loans for up to 36 months to those in need.

For instance, the committee can assist with bills, such as heating, where an unexpected circumstance may have caused extra expense. The process is kept confidential so workers – or Partners, as John Lewis likes to call them – know they won't be embarrassed in front of colleagues.

The mutual building society Nationwide also offers interest-free loans to its 15,000 employees to cover immediate shortfalls. It also offers workers confidential support lines.

I suspect other companies do similar schemes but most don't publicise them very well. For instance, I rang both Tesco and Sainsbury's and neither knew whether they offer any help, although Sainsbury's later confirmed links with charity the Retail Trust which offers assistance to the UK's 3 million retail workers.

If firms don't offer help, they should. And if they do, they must make sure all staff know about it. With millions forced to turn to high-cost payday loans, we should applaud anything that helps people to avoid the clutches of unscrupulous lenders.

But this notion of, if you like, welfare loans for staff is something that all responsible companies can and should offer. Should they be forced to do so? I believe so. Payday lenders can be a menace, leading more and more people into a desperate spiral of debt.

Firms should offer financial help to their workers so they can avoid having to borrow at exorbitant rates.

s.read@independent.co.uk; Twitter: @simonnread

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