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Un-Co-operative discrimination against foreign students

Graham McDougall
Valentine Kalbov is an 18-year-old Music Informatics student from Bulgaria. Valentine is free to enjoy almost all social and academic experiences that the University of Sussex has to offer, except one. As an EU citizen in possession of a Bulgarian ID, Valentine is free to travel to any country in the EU without a passport as long as he produces his home country’s ID at foreign borders. However, there is one place in the EU where Valentine’s ID is not accepted and it’s surprisingly close to his (and my) halls of residence.

Following the recent scandal regarding the hike in fees for International students, I was made aware of yet another issue affecting non-UK students at Sussex. And this time it amounts to nothing less than pure discrimination and a violation of article 21.2 (‘non-discrimination’) of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

If Valentine wants to purchase alcohol or tobacco products in the campus Co-op, they are required to present a valid piece of identification to prove that they over the age of 18. I myself use my passport, others a driving licence: these are the only pieces of ID which the Co-op will accept as proof of age. I and many others have also signed up for the Thumb ID scheme which allows customers to simply place their thumb on a reader to prove their age. The scheme, however, only accepts people registering with one of these two forms of ID.

Now, as EU students don’t need a passport to move between member states, Valentine does not have his passport with him in the UK. He doesn’t have a driving licence either but that point became even less relevant when I learned that the Co-op only accepts UK driving licences as a valid form of ID.

In essence, the Co-op will not, under any circumstances, recognise a piece of ID which they have not arbitrarily decided is valid. It would seem that despite legislation prohibiting any form of discrimination on the grounds of nationality, the Co-op has made its own regulations without considering the law or the number of EU students who might be affected by them.

It may seem a little like I’m making a huge deal about my friend not being able to buy cigarette papers or cider, but to quote Bob Dylan, “the letter of law has no top and no bottom,” and however minor an act of discrimination may seem, it still amounts to discrimination. If Valentine (or any other EU student) is allowed to enter the country as an EU citizen and allowed to take a course of study at a British university, why is he then not allowed to enjoy the same freedoms that other students have automatically? Is the Co-op somehow a more exclusive club than the European Union? Why is it harder for an adult to purchase tobacco and alcohol products than it is for him or her to enter the UK in the first place?

When I asked management at the campus Co-op about this issue (and I have on many occasions), the answer has always been “Oh, that’s our policy,” or “It’s being discussed.” When I told them that their policy on ID was discriminatory and illegal, my argument was simply met with “You can fill out a complaints form if you’d like.” It’s now over a month since fresher’s week. I for one do not believe that anything is being done to correct this oversight or that it is in fact “being discussed” at all.

The Co-op has always had a reputation for being a very ethical company and one with which I would not normally associate with discriminatory practices. However, this issue has made me think differently. That is not to say that I think the Co-op is being purposely discriminatory, simply that a terrible error of judgement has been made when considering rules on ID. If Valentine cannot buy alcohol or tobacco products on campus due to his nationality, the Co-op’s reputation as an ethical company acting in the interests of students is certainly in doubt.

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5 Comments

  1. “If Valentine cannot buy alcohol or tobacco products on campus due to his nationality, the Co-op’s reputation as an ethical company acting in the interests of students is certainly in doubt.”

    Firstly, the reason Valentine cannot buy alcohol or tobacco products on campus is not due to his nationality, is it? It’s due to his form of identification, which is quite clear – even in your crudely-conceived article. If Valentine had showed up with his passport (which, as you mention, he unfortunately doesn’t have with him in the UK) it’s not as if someone would look at it and go: ‘Eugh! What? Bulgarian? Na, sorry mate!’

    Secondly, just because a form of ID is acceptable to a member of airport security that is specifically trained (and has equipment) to check the validity of an ID pass, doesn’t logically entail it’s going to be accepted everywhere else. There’s a fair amount of rigmarole that goes into getting a valid UK driving licence, but I’m not going to use it to travel abroad am I?

    Thirdly, if you really want to try and bring legislation into your argument (which you so liberally and inaccurately do) what about contract law and consumer rights? A company is under no obligation to sell goods to anyone and has the right to refuse sale. It’s pretty standard stuff. There’s a link here if you need a prod in the right direction: http://www.which.co.uk/consumer-rights/sale-of-goods/your-rights-pricing-disputes/your-rights/

    Fourthly, the co-op has that policy principally due to law, but also to help curtail underage drinking and smoking – pretty ethical wouldn’t you say? And yeah, the co-op has a reputation as an ethical company, but not one acting exclusively or specifically in the interests of students as you appear to imagine.

    Also, what’s ‘unethical’ about refusing an alcohol or cigarette sale?

    Reply
    • Yeah, regarding your first point, my non-uk (but EU) passport was denied at the co-op in oxford (headington shops) and I was clearly told that unless my passport said UK I would not be sold alcohol.

      Reply
  2. Although I agree with your article, I’d just like to point out as someone who works at the Co-Op that all you need to sign up to the Thumb ID scheme is a student card, not a driving license or passport. Your friend should be able to get around the policy that way (although, as you say, it is a silly policy).

    Reply
  3. I was also discriminated and kicked out of the shop when showed them my biometric residence card it was humiliating and I will be taking them to court over it. What a joke! Co operative in Overton Hampshire!

    Reply

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