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Page last updated at 10:04 GMT, Wednesday, 9 April 2008 11:04 UK

Who'd be a toilet attendant?

Club toilet

By Daniel Cook

You visit a fancy bar. You go to the toilet. As you wash your hands, a man passes over some nice paper towels. He seems to expect a tip. Welcome to one of the UK's grimmest workplaces.

At 10pm on a Friday, among the drinkers gathering in pubs and bars around the country, Samuel arrives for work.

He unpacks his bottles of soap and cologne, unfolds a chair with a leopard-skin print on the seat, and lays out a silver plate, loading it with half a dozen pound coins.

For the next five hours he will stand guard in the gents' toilets of a pub in a fashionable district of north London, dispensing paper towels and friendly banter, while subtly manoeuvring punters towards the tips plate. Chances are that later on he will be sworn at; he might face physical aggression. He will probably take home less than 50.

Restroom attendant in Ibiza
Collecting tips at Pasha in Ibiza

Being a toilet attendant is not the sort of job many people would choose as a career. It's a job that usually falls to the financially desperate.

Attendants are less than popular with many people, who find the whole experience uncomfortable - Britons have never been natural tippers like the Americans, for example, and the process can be fraught.

Others find toilet attendants nothing less than aggravating. In 2003, Girls Aloud singer Cheryl Tweedy (now Cole) was fined for assaulting a toilet attendant, Sophie Amogbokpa, in a Guildford nightclub. It was reported that an argument broke out after Ms Amogbokpa insisted Tweedy pay her for a lollipop.

Tips alone

So what do customers at the bar where Samuel works, make of his presence?

I feel for them, I really do, but it makes me uncomfortable
Nightclub customer

"Why would anyone want to pay someone else to watch them use the loo?" asks one 30-something patron.

"If bars want to employ people to do that, then fine, I think," argues another. "But they can pay for it themselves out of the huge amount of money they make selling me drinks."

"I feel for them, I really do, but it makes me uncomfortable," says a third, wiping his damp hands on his jeans.

It's no surprise that to some, attendants are more commonly known as "bog trolls". Last year, campaigners launched a petition on the Downing Street website to "regulate staffing and charges in the toilets of pubs and clubs".

Samuel, 33, earns between 30 and 60 a night. He came to Britain on a student visa, which he says only permits him to work up to 20 hours a week.

"I am not supposed to work full-time, and I am not supposed to work in a permanent, salaried job," he says. "So I had to take temporary work."

He first came into the job after answering an advert for work with a cleaning company. But he says he receives no money from the people who first employed him, and is paid only in tips.

"The company is paid by the bar or club, and as far as the people at the club are concerned I am paid the minimum wage. These companies are proper, registered companies. But the fact is, I don't get paid by them at all, and I have to pay some of my tips to my bosses."

Watchful eye

For as long as there have been modern nightclubs, attendants have been guarding the toilets. But as bars and clubs try to stamp out drug use on their premises, owners are using restroom attendants to police the loos. In addition, small-town and suburban clubs, keen to emulate the atmosphere of West End establishments, are using attendants.

Champagne and loo roll at VIP reception for Britain's cleanest toilet
Unlikely to be part of the service

Paul Smith, director of Noctis, an organisation which represents the interests of late-night venues in the UK, says there is "huge pressure on clubs, from a few years ago when some were accused of turning a blind eye to drug-taking in the toilets".

"Now it's part of a socially responsible business to keep the toilets properly managed. We work closely with the Home Office on the issue of a regime for making sure toilets were properly maintained."

At London's Tiger Tiger club, toilet attendants are a key part of the team, says spokesman Jason Thorndycraft. "They are regular members of staff and are paid in accordance with minimum wage requirements. Customers in our venues tell us that they like the personal attention, which is why we employ them."

Yet other venues are more guarded. More than a dozen nightclubs who use toilet attendants were contacted, but not prepared to comment.

"We used to use them - they were a good way to stop two people from going into the cubicle at once [to take drugs]," says one bar manager, who asked to remain anonymous. "We stopped using them a while ago. The clientele has changed a lot here in the past few years and attendants are no longer necessary."

A spokesman for Unite says toilet attendants rarely join a union - it's common in the service industries for immigrants with poor English to be exploited and to find it difficult to organise.

It's a humiliating job, of course it is - people regard this not as a job, but as a charity

Unlike workers in public toilets, who are paid a wage to keep the facilities clean, toilet attendants rely on coaxing tips out of drinkers.

Cleaning companies deal directly with the bar and club owners, says Samuel - attendants usually have to work through these middle men. Samuel said his arrangement is "the normal and only safe way" to work as a bathroom attendant.

"The manager of the bar wants me to be here because I can stop the use of drugs, powders - and stop fights."

Samuel says many toilet attendants are recruited by scouts from cleaning firms, others by word of mouth by those already working.

Samuel, a university graduate, worked for eight years as an architect in his native country and came to the UK to study for a diploma: "A diploma from a European country is treated as if it were a masters degree in Africa."

Does it trouble him that he has found himself working in the toilets of a fairly downmarket disco?

"It's a humiliating job, of course it is. People regard this not as a job, but as a charity. It's a handout, from you to me."

Service culture

In the larger bars and clubs in London's West End, bathroom attendants can make up to 200 on a good night. One of them is James, a man in his 40s.

Cheryl Cole nee Tweedy
Cheryl Cole - then Tweedy - arrives at court after her own altercation

"That's on a good night, a Friday or Saturday close to Christmas. It's usually much less than that," he says. "I don't find it humiliating. In the end we provide a service, and it's something guests have come to expect."

He is sometimes verbally abused, but being 6ft 3ins it's rare for a punter to take it too far.

"Sometimes people give it out, usually the drunk ones, but I don't let it get to me," he says.

Samuel, however, says he encounters aggression almost every night he works: "I know that the way I relate to people means I can handle it." But he says some attendants suffer physical assaults.

"Some people see us as the base of the pyramid. They talk to you like they are better than you. And if they're drunk, they want to fight you."

"One place, they changed the toilet attendant every two weeks because people talked badly to them - how could [the attendants] not react?"

"This is not something I'm going to be doing for ever," James says, as he squirts eau de cologne onto a customer's hands. "One day soon I'm going to be going home."

Below is a selection of your comments.

Toilet attendants annoy me. I'm perfectly capable of drying my own hands. I have my own perfume, and don't want to be sprayed with Charlie Red and be charged a pound for the pleasure. And lollipops? Give me a break, I'm not twelve.
Lucy, Leeds

I worked as a toilet attendant for a large nightclub as a 16-year-old. For me, it was a great job. Standing there offering aftershave and getting handed pound coins every minute... coming out with 60-70 on regular days and 200-300 on nights near Christmas/New Year. That's a great boost to a young lad's pocket money. If I worked hard to earn my tips, people were more than willing to hand over some of their loose pocket change. People need to stop being so snobbish toward people who are on the bottom rung of the ladder. So many people graduating from university to go straight into their first job has made society in general forget what working your way up in the world actually means. The minimum wage laws and welfare state in general add to this problem. Now that I have worked my way up from a toilet attendant earning 100-150 a week to a 22-year-old administrator earning 13,000 a year, every time I go in to the toilet I give the attendant 1 so that he has a chance to progress in life, as I did.
DJ, North East England

If the organization is employing them to "guard" the toilets, is that not a security role, that is licensable in England? If the SIA were to look into this I am sure they could include this as a grade in the SIA accreditation scheme, but maybe at the lower cost to the individual than the door supervisors have to pay.
Richard, Sheffield, UK

From my experience of a club near to my home in south London- the more punters tip the toilet attendant the more he or she will turn a blind eye to the (reasonably) blatant use of narcotics in the bathrooms.
Frances, London

No one should expect a tip for simply passing you a towel to wipe your hands on. If I had a pound for every time I held a door open for someone I would never have to work again. I am quite capable of carrying out all the requirements within a lavatorial area myself. I have lots of practice in my own at home and don't need any help.
Steve, Manchester

If drug-taking and fights are a problem for a pub or club, that's a job for the bouncers - not someone who works for tips.
Jessica, Reading, UK

Who in the right mind would want to pay a 1 for a spray of perfume or a lollipop? They should be employed as part of the staff and paid accordingly, attending the toilets and cleaning, removing glasses and keeping a watch out for any trouble with a link to security. Not be degraded into selling squirts of soap for tips. Customers do not like to be hassled for tips.
Lisa, Blackpool

Toilet attendants - quite possibly the most ridiculous idea ever. It demeans the staff and makes the clients uncomfortable. Faced with a choice between two establishments - one with attendants and one without - I'd choose the one without every time.
Andrew Nicholson, Milton Keynes

In America, its common to have these people at the clubs. Americans do tip, and we are very generous with it. As for the loo attendant, if I dry my hands, I, as well as most people, don't tip for that. If we take gum, cologne, or anything else, we surely do tip then $3 or so.
Jesse, NY, US

If they are watching out for drugs and stopping fights, they should surely have some form of training for their own safety and certainly be earning more than minimum wage, let alone working only for tips. Very few, if any, I imagine are on radio link to security staff.
Fay, Leighton Buzzard

I feel sorry for these attendants, but whenever I go out I am annoyed by them - it's one thing to be there if needed and another to empty the soap dispensers so you have to use the attendants. The cost of my drink should cover the use of the toilet facility and bars "employing" these people with the excuse of "stopping drug use" is stupid. How can they expect an attendant to stop people from using drugs? If you report a noisy party in your neighbourhood, the emergency control will not go to the flat, because "they might be on drugs" - so I was told on many occasions. Pay an attendant decently and employ them to look after the washroom without selling soap and paper towels.
Pat, London

I have felt intimidated in the past by the toilet attendants if I don't want to use their paper towels or soap, this is not a service I have ever asked for or require, I'm a grown adult and can use the toilet on my own. I can understand that they are there to prevent drug taking, but the club should pay them a wage for that. I am British and I only feel required to tip when someone has gone beyond the call of duty in providing me a service I have actually asked for.
Dave Meecham, Birmingham, England

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