21 Mar 2019

Air NZ denies man with tā moko a job

From Checkpoint, 5:48 pm on 21 March 2019

Air New Zealand has been called disgraceful and discriminatory after turning away a man from a job because of his tā moko.

Sydney Heremaia, who lives in Whangārei, said his tā moko was about his whakapapa and identity.

"My grandfather passed away 15 years ago and handed me my tā moko," he said.

"He said, 'If you choose to get a tā moko, this would be the preferred kind of design that would be line with our whakapapa'."

Mr Heremaia said since then he had always worn it proudly.

That was why he was so taken aback when he was told by Air New Zealand he was not going to be considered for a job because of his tā moko.

The Whangārei man had applied for a casual position in the airline's customer service team last month.

He told them about his tā moko and Samoan tatau on his shoulder and arm.

But two days ago, the airline sent him an email saying he would not be considered for the role because his body art did not comply with the standards for its uniform - which features a koru.

"I just felt like there was a degree of a lack of integrity from Air New Zealand's side," he said.

"They're kind of saying, 'Your culture is okay for us to have on our planes and on our uniforms but only when they're designed specifically for the plane.' "

Mr Heremaia said he was speaking up about what happened to him because this was not just about tā moko, it was about the rights of other people with cultures that look visibly different.

He said everyone should feel their cultural identity was fully embraced in their workplace.

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

It said because some forms of tattoo were so closely associated with a particular ethnic or racial group, like the tā moko or tatau, it could be discriminatory to deny the wearer the opportunity for employment. 

A senior lecturer of Maori Development at the Auckland University of Technology, Ella Henry, said Air New Zealand's response was outrageous.

"Air New Zealand's brand, it's internationally recognised brand, the name of its lounges is a Māori word and... symbol.

"So, to deny [someone] his Māori identity on his body, to deny him a job whilst they utilise Māori cultural property is disgraceful in the 21st century."


Jordan Clarke has been a tā moko artist for the past decade.

He works at Ōtautahi Tattoo in Auckland and said he knew people who had been discriminated against and turned away from venues because of their tā moko.

"People should have the freedom to express themselves however they want, whether that's [through] religion or cultural [practises]."

Air New Zealand said it could not comment specifically on an individual's case because of privacy requirements.

But it said many of its international customers, especially some Asian countries, found body art offensive or associated it with criminal behaviour.

The airline said it had been reviewing its guidelines for body art since late last year and would be making what it calls a positive announcement by the end of April.