An Air New Zealand policy banning tā moko on staff while displaying koru designs on its uniforms and planes has been described as "corporate tokenism" with calls for it to be scrapped.

Despite initially defending its position, the airline today said it had been reviewing its policy and expected to male a "positive announcement" in the coming weeks.

Whangārei man Sydney Heremaia, 36, said he was turned down for an Air New Zealand customer service agent role last month because of a tā moko on his right shoulder, and tatau, a Samoan design, on his left forearm.

Both were not visible while wearing a corporate shirt.

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"I have had the tā moko for 15 years, since my papa died. It reflects my iwi Ngāti Whātua, and my whānau. My tatau reflects my Pacific heritage.

"To have Air New Zealand call it body art made me feel s*** for being Māori."

Sydney (Hirini) Heremaia says he has been turned down for a job with Air NZ because of his Ta Moko. Photo / Michael Cunningham
Sydney (Hirini) Heremaia says he has been turned down for a job with Air NZ because of his Ta Moko. Photo / Michael Cunningham

Air New Zealand yesterday defended its policy yesterday, stating "customer facing staff are not permitted to have tattoos visible when wearing the uniform".

Today a spokesperson said the company recognised the need to allow uniformed staff the ability to express their identity as well as the fact many international customers found "body art" offensive and associated it with criminal behaviour.

"Therefore, we have spent considerable time since late last year talking to customers, cultural advisers and staff about potential changes to our guidelines for uniformed staff displaying body art, including cultural tattoos. This work is nearing its conclusion and we expect to make an announcement by the end of April."

Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson said the policy was "systemic racism", and even illegal.

"I can't believe it is 2019 and we still have these outdated attitudes. They are breaking the Human Rights Act.

"It is not body art, it is an identity marker, so when you are blocked from an interview or employment due to an identity marker it is race-based discrimination.

"It is also hypocritical given they have koru designs on their planes and uniforms, but won't allow them on people."

She said Air New Zealand needed to change its policy, fast.

"I have been pleased with their efforts with Māori culture, increasing te reo among staff. This policy just seems so out of touch.

"There are ways to have a policy that distinguishes between cultural moko and offensive tattoos."

Air New Zealand is being called hypocritical for not allowing tā moko on staff but using Māori motifs in its uniforms. Photo / File
Air New Zealand is being called hypocritical for not allowing tā moko on staff but using Māori motifs in its uniforms. Photo / File

Ngāti Whātua Ōrākei Trust deputy chairman Ngarimu Blair also called on Air New Zealand to scrap its "racist" policy.

"Your ban on Māori moko is racist and hypocritical given you gladly use and profit off Māori cultural design icons and language."

Māori cultural advisor Karaitiana Taiuru said Air New Zealand's policy was "another slap in the face".

"It is not just art, it is a birthright to wear moko, it represents family, identity and history. It has been around forever and comes from Ruaumoko, the Maori god of earthquakes, volcanic lava/activity and scarification, or moko.

"Moko - including tā moko and moko kaue [chin] - are taonga, and not allowing Māori to display them is not only discriminatory but a breach of the Treaty of Waitangi."

Sydney (Hirini) Heremaia said he has had his tā moko for over 15 years, which signifies his whānau and iwi Ngāti Whātua. Photo / Michael Cunningham
Sydney (Hirini) Heremaia said he has had his tā moko for over 15 years, which signifies his whānau and iwi Ngāti Whātua. Photo / Michael Cunningham

Taiuru said the policy was also a breach of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which New Zealand signed in 2010.

Article 31 states indigenous peoples "have the right to maintain, control, protect
and develop their cultural heritage, traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions", including designs. It also calls for states to take measures to recognise and protect these rights.

Taiuru said Air New Zealand's policy was also hypocritical, given the use of Māori motifs throughout its branding and tourism, and that it sponsored the All Blacks, many of whom had tā moko.

"People who come to New Zealand are exposed to moko all of the time, whether in people they meet or even the All Blacks.

"Air New Zealand has had a culture of appropriation since the 1970s with its koru designs, and now all their staff say 'kia ora'. This policy then banning tā moko just shows a corporate culture of tokenism, using Māori where it suits but then discriminating when it is on our skin."

Air New Zealand is being called hypocritical for not allowing tā moko on staff but using Māori motifs throughout its branding. Photo / File
Air New Zealand is being called hypocritical for not allowing tā moko on staff but using Māori motifs throughout its branding. Photo / File

A Human Rights Commission spokeswoman said a person of Māori descent could not be denied employment, entry to premises, or declined service because they wore moko visibly.

"Traditional Māori moko is an expression and celebration of Māori culture and identity.

"The Human Rights Act makes it unlawful to discriminate based on race or ethnicity.

"Some forms of tattoo are so closely associated with a particular ethnic or racial group that the marking is enough to identify a person as belonging to that group.

"Where there is a close or recognised link, like a facial moko, tā moko or tatau, then it can be discriminatory to deny the wearer the opportunity for employment."

Sydney (Hirini) Heremaia says Air New Zealand is being hypocritical as it has Māori motifs in its uniforms and branding. Photo / Michael Cunningham
Sydney (Hirini) Heremaia says Air New Zealand is being hypocritical as it has Māori motifs in its uniforms and branding. Photo / Michael Cunningham

The commission's advice to employers was to use their common sense in identifying moko, rather than seeking to question the authenticity of the moko or the ethnicity of the person with the moko.

Anybody who had been turned away for a job because of their moko could contact the commission for assistance.

In 2013 Māori woman Claire Nathan complained after being turned down for an Air New Zealand air hostess role because of her tā moko.

Air New Zealand said at the time it did not allow them as some passengers "would not feel comfortable", regardless of whether the tattoos were considered to be cultural or otherwise.

Sydney (Hirini) Heremaia said his tā moko and tatau are not even visible in a long shirt. Photo / Michael Cunningham
Sydney (Hirini) Heremaia said his tā moko and tatau are not even visible in a long shirt. Photo / Michael Cunningham

Then-Prime Minister John Key said he disagreed with the airline's argument it could put off tourists.

"It would be a problem if it did because a lot of the Māori events they go to, there are lots of tattoos."