Oh my days…

Welcome back. Apologies for the hiatus. Where were we?

As you may have gathered from reading some of my pieces previously, every so often I will read, hear, see or experience something that compels me to retort, usually with it ending up on here in some sort of eloquent form. And, at the risk of sounding like a teenager discovering his gentleman-vegetables for the first time – it’s happened again.

It’s about two years now since I was mid-way through my tenure as the ‘Comment & Opinion editor’ for my university’s weekly rag, so I completely understand the editorial reasons behind the publication of articles that may be inflammatory, inaccurate, or just incoherent – often I would have spaces to fill and nothing else to fill them with. However I am no longer in that position of necessity, and feel compelled to defend something of professional interest.

I promised myself a long time ago that I would never write about family or work, quite frankly for fear of sticking my foot in it, but as this is a retort to previous online literature, and not coming entirely from my own experiences, I feel safe in posting it, but will add the caveat that this is entirely my own understanding, that nothing should be taken as absolute fact, and everything, as always, should be taken with a small handful of the coarsest-grained salt you have to hand.

I do still work at the university, at the primary supermarket on campus, and have done since it opened at the beginning of the last academic year. This time has been far from trouble-free for everyone concerned with its operation, including the students. The disgruntlement of this group makes it a prime target for the aforementioned inflammatory, inaccurate and incoherent pieces I previously oversaw, and sure enough, the red laser-sight of angry penmanship has settled flickeringly on it in recent weeks. This is a piece I found online, dated 28th October:

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.

Graham McDougall

To which I have written a response:

Graham,

It seems you are not one to let a few facts or misconceptions get in the way of writing a gloriously lengthy, inflammatory piece. So as someone with knowledge and experience regarding the predicament your friend finds himself in, allow me to put forward a few more accurate facts of my own.

It seems you have mistaken the Co-op for the USSU. Your last point about the former’s reputation “as an ethical company acting in the interests of students” being in doubt is quickly disputed with the use of one’s favourite search engine. You are quite accurate that they are ethically motivated, but sadly they make no claims to act in the interests of any students. The Co-op store as it is now is run in partnership with the USSU, with the latter providing the staffing. While the similarities in their vision and values were a contributing factor towards the partnership it is erroneous to believe the headers are interchangeable and, as such, that the Co-op is looking out for students.

The overriding tone I picked up from your piece is that it is illegal, by virtue of being discriminatory, to refuse sale of age restricted products to anyone without one of a handful of very specific forms of identification. You appear to have overlooked the similarly illegal practices of supplying alcohol or tobacco products to those under eighteen years of age. As the main retailer on a university campus I would have expected these responsibilities to be prioritised over anything else. Priorities aside, I can’t see any actual discrimination taking place – the staff there ‘ID’ anyone who tries to buy age restricted products if they so happen to look under twenty-five. This is their way of complying with the Licencing Act of 2003. It is unfortunate that students from the EU are less likely to have acceptable forms, yes, but they’re not actively discriminating against them.

Whereas in the York House store it may have been possible to find the manager, say I want to use ID ‘X’ as proof of age, and have it enacted there and then, there is a lot more bargaining that has to be done between the USSU and the Co-op before staff in the former so much as breathes deeply. However that is not to say it is impossible to achieve a positive outcome – on last visiting I witnessed staff sighing no less than twelve times! On a slightly more relevant point, at the last set of sessions of Thumb ID sign-ups, three weeks before the date of this posting, the latest generation of Sussex student ID – that with a date of birth – allowed the holder to register. This, it is my understanding, was the result of discussions between the store management and their Co-op counterparts.

However, aside from all of the above, the most glaring fact you seem to have overlooked in your piece is that there are three other outlet on campus alone for the sale of alcohol, one of which also sells tobacco, and a small town not but a short bus ride away with numerous more providing the same, all, I’m sure, with fair, equal, and totally undiscriminating policies.

Yes I realise both the original piece and my response are fairly insular, but I’m presuming most who read it will be on that proverbial island, and those adrift will ask to be towed ashore. As with my other piece-response post, I haven’t posted it as a response on the original page – the internet is no place for constructive discussion, and quite frankly I’m not a confrontational type! I’m more interested in the provocation of discussion on the subject which I anticipate is what the original author had in mind as well.

Jack out.

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About Jack
A small-time traveller in a big-time world

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