Gangs, syringes and bodily fluids: A view from behind the bar

A raw and unfiltered glimpse into the challenges workers in the hospitality industry face.

Photo of drinks being prepared on a bar. Credit: Alex Voulgaris

Warning: Some of the content in this story may be distressing.

In a city grappling with a crime rate surpassing the national average by 54%The Gazette has conducted extensive interviews with bar staff and venue workers across Leicester, shedding light on their experiences within the local hospitality sector.

What has emerged from these interviews are troubling reports of gang-related violence, the discovery of used syringes and drugs on-premises, instances of sexual harassment involving both customers and fellow employees, and legitimate safety concerns.

These are their stories in their words. However, names have been changed at their request for fear of pushback from venues in the industry. They offer a raw and unfiltered glimpse into the challenges those working within this sector face.

Gangs, syringes and bodily fluids

I met up with Lucy on her fifth 12-hour shift of the week. On a quick cigarette break, she tells me she can’t wait to have tomorrow afternoon off, especially after dealing with closing time the night before.

Like many others, Lucy joined the hospitality industry when she moved to Leicester to study at university. Away from home and in a new city, Lucy was one of the 48,300 people working in the tourism and hospitality industry in Leicester, worth £1.2bn to the local economy.

Despite being a billion-pound industry, it’s not always glamorous. As Lucy tells me, at times, it is extremely dangerous. Last year, Lucy and a colleague were confronted by a gang when they were ‘cut off’ from drinking during a weekday shift. Lucy said: “One of them started threatening and insulting my co-workers, who cut them off. One threw a pint glass at the back of the bar, which was pretty scary for all of us”.

In a typical weekday shift, staff at Lucy’s venue, like many in the city, are left to navigate hostile situations amongst themselves, with one or two staff on in the mornings and without door staff in the evenings. Like many other venues in Leicester, Lucy’s place of work only has door staff on Friday and Saturday nights, which she says is leaving staff feeling unsafe. 

Lucy thinks Thursdays are slowly becoming the new Friday nights in Leicester city centre. Their team has witnessed a rise in aggressive and violent behaviour in the past 12 months – much of which she tells me goes unreported to authorities because staff end up dealing with the situations themselves. 

Describing the dangerous behaviour from customers, Lucy told The Gazette that the worst things she’s come across recently are bodily fluids at tables and in the bathrooms, whilst staff at the same venue have reported finding syringes and drugs on the premises. I’d later learn that this is a common occurrence across many venues in the city centre.

However, customer abuse is just one issue her team faces regarding staff safety. Finishing her drink before heading back to work, Lucy said: “There have also been times homeless people have come in; most of the time, they are harmless, but you do get the odd threatening type as well that we’ve had to kick out”. 

Lucy continued: “It would be nice to have security staff on in the week, but a lot of pubs and bars can’t really afford it most of the time. I’m not sure what the answer is, but it would be better if the police could patrol the area more often and on weekdays”.

She also highlighted that allowing venues to have something to “defend themselves with” is needed, suggesting that panic buttons could help support staff, sometimes serving alone, feel safer.

Many shops in the Highcross and Haymarket shopping centres have panic buttons installed behind counters, sending a signal to the police that the staff behind the counters need assistance or are in danger. However, hospitality venues in the city have yet to adopt this safety measure. 

Our time was nearly up, and Lucy had to get back to her shift, but before leaving, I asked her a question I was nervous to hear the answer to: “Do you feel safe?". Catching her off-guard slightly, she took a second, and I feared I might have been the first person to ask her that, or at least the first person in a long time. 

Whilst gathering her bags, Lucy said she has felt unsafe at times. She continued: “We don’t get paid enough to deal with that. I used to have panic attacks if an older gentleman customer would touch me a certain way when I would get glasses. I’m not working in hospitality to be touched by some random person.”

“He pulled my top down so he could see my breasts”

Penny left the hospitality industry after working as a waitress and bartender for two and half years at a venue just off Jubilee Square. She was keen to share her first-hand experience of sexual harassment by customers as well as the sexual harassment she witnessed colleagues endure from other members of staff.

When Penny was 18, she said a customer “pulled my top down so he could see my breasts". She described it as the worst thing a customer did, leaving her feeling “deeply uncomfortable”. She explained that she didn’t know what to do then and didn’t tell her manager what had happened until the table left. 

Reflecting on the incident, Penny stated: “Generally, I felt supported by management and other staff members. I was comforted by the other staff and told that if a customer is acting inappropriately, to try and report it whilst they are still present so it can be handled, but I didn’t know what the procedure in those circumstances was”.

She continued to describe the type of sexual harassment that occurred behind the counter, remembering vividly how kitchen staff overstepped personal boundaries while she worked there. “It led to one guy being dismissed for sexual harassment. He’d been sending sexual messages to one of the waitresses and was dismissed fairly soon after that – but I don’t know whether it was the first instance or whether it was the final straw".

“She grabbed his dick”

Robert, a bartender who works in St Martin’s Square, was keen to highlight the sexual harassment male colleagues also experience. He described one moment when he witnessed a woman grope the manager on shift. “We were on shift, the restaurant had been busy, and there was one table in particular, a group of ladies who had a lot to drink”, he said.

He continued: “My colleague was serving them, and she grabbed his dick and tried to grab him and kiss him. She was forcing herself on him”. 

Despite crime and antisocial behaviour in Leicester’s city centre reducing by 28% over the past five years, much of that ‘reduced crime’, like burglary or criminal damage, doesn’t account for ‘personal crime’, like sexual assault.

According to Robert, who has worked in the industry for four years in different venues across the city, male staff are less likely to report incidents of sexual harassment from customers because of uncertainty about how it will be received by staff. 

Robert stated: “I’ve seen it happen to male staff time and time again, female staff too, but the cases I’ve seen with male colleagues – well – I don’t think any of them were officially reported, and nothing happened as a result”.

Customers threatened with a steak knife

Robert later introduced me to Jeremy, who works at a different St Martin’s Square venue. In Jeremy’s seven years of working front-of-house in different Leicester restaurants, he agreed to sit down with The Gazette to tell us about a recent incident which made him question his safety and the safety of his colleagues. 

Jeremy said: “The worst thing I’ve personally dealt with has to be a guest walking around with a steak knife shouting at other guests waving the knife around”. On this occasion, the police were called. However, they were only called after staff removed her from the restaurant, stating: “The police arrived very quickly, but it made me question my safety.” 

I also spoke with Sam, who also works at the venue where the knife incident occurred. Having worked in hospitality abroad for over 20 years, Sam told us that whilst he hasn’t felt unsafe recently, he is well aware of the risks associated with the job. Having moved to Leicester from overseas a year ago, Sam described the nightlife in Leicester as “unique".

His time in Leicester has included a person “pissing their pants at a table” and women getting their “tits out in the middle of the bar”. He said there have also been some very public domestic bust-ups.

Despite being aware of the antisocial behaviour that is encountered by his colleagues in the industry, Sam spoke highly of his colleagues across the sector and was keen to highlight that the industry is close-knit and offers opportunities for people arriving in the city to make friends, meet new people and to embed themselves into the heart of the town. 

Despite Sam feeling safe since moving to Leicester, he acknowledged that his experience may be better than others because, in his words, he hasn’t experienced anything “terribly wrong or life-threatening, to say any different".

Sam echoed Lucy’s call for more precautions to prevent antisocial behaviour and safeguard staff. He said, “I believe that every establishment should be aware of the type of customers they deal with and equip themselves with the necessary manning and/or equipment to prevent such events”. 

“It took a mental and physical toll”

One aspect of violence that each interviewee echoed was how frequently they witnessed domestic abuse and sexual violence. 

JJ left the industry last year after running a pub in the city centre. Speaking about what it was like to manage a venue, JJ recounted the time he had to ban several customers after witnessing domestic violence, calling it “one of the worst things” he has ever seen in the industry. 

JJ said: “Someone was being physically violent towards their partner, then when approached by myself and another member of staff, this person became verbally and physically violent towards us.”

In this instance, the aggressor was eventually ejected from the venue, with the main priority being to get the victim to “as safe of an environment as possible". Following this, the police were contacted by venue staff, but no legal action followed. The couple were informed at the time they were banned from the pub, but according to JJ, that “did not stop them from attempting to come back into the venue on multiple occasions after the incident”.

Speaking openly for the first time since leaving the industry, JJ said: “Honestly, it happens much more than people would like to admit. It doesn’t always escalate to the extent of the situation explained. It ranges from your typical lover’s tiff to the complete polar opposite”. 

JJ added that during his time in management, staff were encouraged to keep up to date with the correct procedures to best deal with situations, like responding appropriately to the Ask for Angela scheme if someone needed assistance. Ultimately, despite loving the industry, JJ described the “mental and physical toll” of running a venue. 

There are currently many initiatives designed to protect members of the public on a night out, including Ask for Angela, We Walk Away and Your Right: That’s Wrong. However, there are currently no initiatives to protect staff – who are often the first to experience and witness violence and harassment.

This month, Leicester was awarded Purple Flag status for the fourth time – recognising the city centre as a safe and enjoyable destination during night-time hours. But those statistics only account for crimes committed between 8pm-5am Friday and Saturday, not weekday crimes.

That means for workers like Lucy, gang-related violence on a Thursday night goes unreported.

If you have been a victim of a crime and need support, contact Victim First on 0800 953 9595, email them at, or visit for more information.

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