Maori Woman Not Hired on Basis of Cultural Tattoo

Untitled Document A Maori woman was rejected for a dishwashing job at the Brooklyne Tearooms in Sanson in February when the café owner claimed her moko kauae, a traditional Maori tattoo, would be bad for business.

According to the Manawatu Standard, Christina Bevan, a 35-year-old Rangitikei woman, first interviewed for the job over the phone, and was asked to come to the café for an interview. When the two met in person, the owner allegedly told Bevan that she would not be hired because of the moko kauae that covered her chin and lips.

Asserting that the owner was in violation of New Zealand’s Human Rights Act, Bevan filed a complaint with the national Human Rights Commission and the case is under investigation. Bevan claimed that the owner is in violation of the Human Rights Act of 1993, which states that it is unlawful to discriminate against a person in an area of public life, including employment, based on their race.

Ta moko, the process of taking a moko, came to New Zealand from Eastern Polynesia. Traditionally, men may take mokos that cover their whole face, while women cover only their upper lip and chin. The chin moko, called moko kauae, has survived the longest and is reappearing in a renaissance of Maori reclamation. Maori constitute 9.7 percent of New Zealand’s population.

"It’s a strong statement of who we are as Maori, our art, our cultural representation of ourselves," said Pania Ellison, a Maori woman who took moko three years ago. "It’s wonderful, but it’s not easy."

Bevan told the Manawatu Standard that her moko tells a story about her culture and her whakapapa, genealogy. She took her moko three months ago by an artist Foxton tohunga Hemi Te Peeti.

Taking a moko is an "identity reclamation," said Moana Durie-Sinclair, a Maori lawyer and professor at the University of Noumea in New Caledonia. "You are saying, ‘I am Maori, and I am different.’"

According to the Manawatu Standard, the owner of Brooklyne Tearooms said that she makes other employees take off their facial piercings, but pointed out that she could not ask Bevan to "remove her chin."

A similar case that went to the Human Rights Commission in 2001 involved a Gisborne bar that refused service to Kay Robin, who wore a moko kauae, as part of its "no facial or offensive tattoos" policy. The commission and the bar owner came to the agreement that the policy was in breach of the indirect discrimination provision of the Human Rights Act.

Robin received NZ$3,000 compensation and the bar owner changed the policy. New Zealand Race Relations Commissioner Joris de Bres told the Human Rights Commission in a 2003 press release that "discrimination on the basis of race is not just about the color of one’s skin but may also include important cultural markings."

In a statement to One News, de Bres said that if the commission finds the Brooklyne Tearoom owner’s actions were illegal discrimination, the two parties will go into mediation. The case has not yet been considered, but de Bres said that "in principle the issue of a moko could come under issue of indirect discrimination arising from a person's culture."

Various new sources, including the New Zealand Herald, have reported that the café owner has refused to comment on the case.

Member of Parliament Stephen Franks told the New Zealand Herald that employers should have the right to not associate with people with facial tattoos.

"Those who disagree with a fashion or political statement should be free to ensure they don’t have it shoved in their face all the time, on their premises and with their customers," Franks said.

Durie-Sinclair said, "the outcome of the case will depend a lot on how the Human Rights Act is interepreted—it could be interpreted in favour of the employers point of view." She hopes, however, "that any human rights legislation in Aotearoa New-Zealand will support the human rights of indigenous Maori to express their culture in their ancestral lands."

The owner’s refusal to hire Bevan and Franks’ support for so-called employer rights go "beyond being negative about Maorim," Ellison said. "[They] make a negative statement about difference."

Despite claims that their findings would be publicized by now, the Human Rights Commission has not announced their findings.