The chief executive of the KiwiYo company says he is deeply sorry that a Whangarei teenager quit her job after she was told not to greet customers with a traditional "kia ora".
Monet-Mei Clarke, 17, had worked there for four weeks before she quit. Yesterday, she returned to Whangarei's KiwiYo - where she had been told to say just "hello" to customers - but this time as part of a protest organised by Hone Harawira and the Mana Party. Those who took part came from as far away as Auckland.
The political heat outside the frozen-yoghurt store in Cameron St could have melted the produce as the street filled in support of Ms Clarke's action, and Te Whanau O Waimirangi students from Whangarei Intermediate School performed a haka.
A statement from KiwiYo chief executive Norman Markgraaff said he was deeply sorry this situation had occurred.
"It is not clear who said what to whom in this scenario but all of us here at KiwiYo are, frankly, mortified as we believe that the word 'kia ora' is an entirely appropriate greeting and can be used as part of the KiwiYo welcome presentation.
"If you take a look at both our staff and our customers, we employ and serve a wide variety of nationalities and we respect them all equally and the Maori language, one of New Zealand's three official languages, is just as appropriate as any other if a staff member wishes to use that greeting. "My family and I come from South Africa and if we were to greet a fellow South African we may well choose to do so in Afrikaans - and that is equally as appropriate in our view.
"The most important thing is to make a customer feel welcome and feel important," he said.
"It doesn't matter what language that it is done in.
"We will be working with our network of stores to ensure that this issue does not arise again."
Margaret Lang, the owner-franchisee of KiwiYo Whangarei, said there were two sides to every story and her side had not been represented properly by anyone.
"This whole issue has been blown out of proportion by making it a race and language issue, when simply, it is not. The issue has stemmed from when the staff member said 'kia ora' to new customers rather than the formal greeting they are trained and required to do," she said.
"This greeting is based around variations of 'Welcome to KiwiYo, have you been here before'.
"The staff member in question did not follow it up with the greeting, instead her entire welcome was simply 'kia ora'. If she had said 'hello' or 'bonjour' and not followed it up with the required greeting, I would have pulled her up on it too.
"This is not about the use of 'kia ora' but simply an issue of non-compliance," she said. "... I have three staff members who are Maori. I am not racist."
Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy said Ms Clarke should contact the Human Rights Commission and work with mediators to resolve the issue "amicably and positively". She likened the case to that of iwi leader Naida Glavis, who was nearly fired for saying 'kia ora' while working as a Post Office telephone operator in 1984.
"I had thought the days of people being censured for speaking Maori were over but perhaps I was wrong."
- APNZ, Northern Advocate