Benevolent booze: looking out for workers within the drinks trade

The employees of the drinks sector are its most important feature. Elliot Gardner speaks to alcoholic drinks industry charity The Benevolent to see how they support the thousands of drinks workers in the UK.


The food and drink industry is the largest manufacturing sector in the country, and the alcoholic drinks sector employs thousands of workers across the UK. It’s inevitable then, that members of this momentous workforce are from time to time going to fall on hard times. Fortunately, drinks industry charity The Benevolent is there offering support to valuable employees of the alcohol sector, providing a helping hand when times are tough. Chief executive David Cox describes just how much the charity does for the industry.

Elliot Gardner: So tell me more about The Benevolent and what you do?

David Cox: The charity was founded in 1886, so we've been going for quite some time. In essence we are here as a trade charity, supporting anyone who has either worked or is working for the drinks trade in the UK. We're kind of a safety net for anyone who has a crisis of any sort, small or large, in their life or their family’s lives. Either as well as or instead of their own company helping them, we can be there to offer additional help. That comes in three forms; emotional, practical or financial.

A lot of people used to think that you had to be retired for us to help, and that it was really just money that we gave, and of course we do help in that way but it’s more than that. We help a lot of people who are younger and need assistance, or people who have worked in drinks but left to work in another sector. All we require is two years of work within the trade. It’s a very low tenure, and if someone is very young and is working as, say, a bartender, we just say as long as 20% of your working life has been in the drinks industry, so you've shown some sort of commitment to the trade, then we're there to help.

And yes, of course we help financially when people have trouble paying the energy bills, or if anything gets a little bit tight in their lives, but now we offer emotional and practical help for all sorts of well-being difficulties, including stress, bereavement, and family difficulties. Anything that happens to people in their lives where they need to turn to someone, we are the charity that can potentially offer support. Our mantra is that if we can’t help you, then we'll know someone that can.

EG: I understand you were named something slightly different in the past?

DC: Yes, our old name from way back was the rather old fashioned Wine and Spirit Trades Benevolent Society, but that got changed to the current name of The Benevolent about five years ago because we help all relevant sectors within alcoholic drinks, from brewing to cider making, to logistics, to marketing. Because of the old name, there was a misconception that we only dealt with wine and spirits, but that’s not true.

EG: Have you found people are coming to you for help more since the name change?

DC: Certainly among the brewers. It was quite an odd situation; for many years we were helping publicans and the on-license trade, but as brewers have changed and as the big companies started to become operators of hotels and pubs we weren't known so much with the PubCos like Whetherspoons. But I think awareness of us has grown now those sectors know that we're there.

More importantly I think the number of people turning to us is improving because the amount of noise we're making has increased. We've reached out to a lot more companies, and to a lot of staff within those companies to say “we are a safety net, we are there, please turn to us,” and it’s really working. We have around 600 cases of support each year, and it used to be half that a few years ago.

EG: What’s the most common type of support that you end up providing to people?

DC: In the old days it really was financial support, usually in the form of a monthly grant. We still do that and it does make a difference, especially to retired people, but these days, when its younger people that turn to us, the things that really come to the surface are debt, especially store-card or housing debts. We won’t pay someone's debt off, as sometimes it can be really huge, but we'll perhaps make a contribution, or get someone off their back and then offer debt counselling and management.

Bereavement and illness in the family is also another issue, and of course the topic of mental health. We've broadened our help with mental health so we're getting more referrals in that respect. The government and the NHS are cutting back on things, so any form of disability that we can help with, such as someone needing a motorised scooter, or a stair lift in their home, we can kick in with home improvements and products that perhaps the government aren't so willing to pay for these days.

EG: Are there any areas that you don't currently cover that you want to provide support in in the future?

DC: Well, the first thing that springs to a lot of people's minds when you say you're a trade charity in the drinks industry is alcoholism. It’s not the reason we exist, but of course if someone has a misuse problem then we're there to help. Though we would probably in that respect be more of a middle man pointing them towards more specialist agencies, because our own welfare officers are not trained counsellors.

But more importantly, as mental health is coming to the fore, we are really trying to look at how we can broaden our help, and perhaps look at how we can align ourselves with other agencies so we can offer more immediate support. We're starting, and we can help, but we want to expand on that area.

EG: So the two year minimum of working in the industry - is that purely because you can’t afford to offer help to anybody who's been around for less than that time?

DC: Yes, it’s worth noting that a lot of charities ask for a five years minimum, but we've reduced it to two because we know that there are quite a lot of young people in the trade that may not have worked there for that long. We're funded by the trade, and we obviously do fundraising as well, but if I go to Diageo, and all the other drinks businesses and say “we're here to help people in our drinks community”, I've got to demonstrate that we're helping people who've at least given some form of career development to this trade. I think two years is a fair time for people to have worked in the trade. Having said that, we look at things on a case-by-case basis, and we may make a decision on something outside of that period if we think that it is a hardship case and we're making a difference in someone’s life.

If you know of someone who has a problem in their life or their family's lives, they can turn to us; we're here to help them. We do make a hell of a difference to a lot of people - young and old. We operate in a very community driven industry, it’s a very lifestyle-driven sector, and we're all very passionate about our products, so the concept of having a charity to help pick up people when they've fallen is really appealing.