Statoil gas station
Statoil gas station

The equality ombudsman of Sweden has filed a discrimination lawsuit against Statoil ASA, (NYSE: STO), the Norway-based multinational oil and gas company, after workers at Swedish gas stations refused to allow Roma (Gypsy) customers to rent a car.

It has emerged that this issue arose over a prank pulled by Sveriges Radio (SR), Sweden's national publicly funded radio broadcaster, which sent a group of people dressed in "traditional" Roma clothing to 65 gas stations operated by Statoil across the country, as well as by OKQ8 and Preem AB. In about one-third of the time (22 incidents), the station employees told the "Roma" that no automobiles were available for hire. However, when a reporter from SR (not dressed in Roma garb) arrived half an hour later, a car was suddenly available.

"It's very insulting and it's really unbelievable that people can look you in the eye and lie to your face," Pirjo Lindström, a Finnish Roma who participated in the ‘test,’ told SR. In response, Sweden’s equal rights ombudsman (Diskriminerings-Ombudsmannen, or DO) said it will take legal action against three Statoil stations (two in the Stockholm suburbs of Solna and Nacka, and the other in Luleå in northern Sweden) that refused to serve the Roma. "[The Roma] were treated worse than others have been treated in a comparable situation," DO said.

"We are suing in this case to highlight the big problem that is the discrimination of the Roma community, and because we want to get a new court ruling on how large the compensation should be," DO’s Ulrika Dieterson told SR. "We have extremely strong evidence. This conversation was recorded in audio, so we have strong proof of how the discrimination occurred.” These lawsuits essentially mean that the DO, as an agency of Sweden’s government, is suing the government of Norway, since, at 67 percent, the state of Norway is Statoil’s largest individual shareholder.

The Local newspaper reported that DO will seek damages of between 40,000 and 60,000 kronor (about $6,010 and $9,020) for each individual case of discrimination. “The Roma often face victimization in everyday situations and are often excluded from such things most of us take for granted. But for the most part its word against word, and then it is very difficult to prove that discrimination has occurred,” Martin Mörk, director of DO's process unit, said in a statement according to SR.

According to the Goteborg Daily newspaper, Statoil has responded to the accusations. “If this is correct, it’s a serious issue. It’s against our policy; it’s not how we work. If this turns out to be discrimination it is serious, no doubt about that,” Ola Enquist, head of Statoil’s full service stations in Sweden, told SR.

The Roma people of Europe are believed to have migrated from northwestern India in the Middle Ages. They account for significant portions of the population in Eastern European states like Bulgaria and Romania.

As a result, the case has outraged an India Hindu organization in the United States. Rajan Zed, a Hindu activist and President of Universal Society of Hinduism, has asked Statoil’s chairman and chief executive officer to apologize for discriminating against Roma people in Sweden. Zed noted that the company’s own "Ethics Code of Conduct" states: "Statoil does not accept any form of discrimination of its own employees or others involved in Statoil’s activities. … Discrimination includes all unequal treatment, exclusion or preference on the basis of race.” Zed also urged the European Commission to conduct an investigation and if it's found guilty, discipline Statoil.

Roma still reportedly face political, social and economic exclusion in Sweden, Zed stated. He added it is Sweden's moral obligation to improve the plight of its Roma population and stop human rights violations suffered by them, who were reportedly the most disadvantaged. Noting that Roma had been living in Sweden since the 16th century, Zed asked, “How many more centuries must they reside in Sweden to prove that they were 'real and equal' Swedes like any other?”

According to Swedish media, about 120,000 Roma live in Sweden.