Moko: your rights

Can people refuse to serve me, or employ me, because I wear moko?

Traditional Māori moko is an expression of and celebration of Māori culture and identity. A person of Māori descent may not be denied employment, entry to premises, or declined service because they wear moko visibly.

Over the years there have been occasions when Māori who wear moko have been refused service because of a ban on tattoos, or a specific ban on facial tattoos. The Commission received several complaints that were resolved through mediation. Outcomes have included education for proprietors and employers, apologies, and financial settlements.

The Commission’s general advice to proprietors and employers is 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.

If you have been refused service or entry to a public place such as a bar or restaurant because you wear moko, or turned away for a job, you can contact the Commission for help on 0800 496 877.

Commission viewpoint on Moko

All New Zealanders are familiar with the traditional moko. It appears in our carvings, our art, and it is recognised internationally as something distinctively and uniquely New Zealand. Maori have traditionally worn the moko as an inherent part of their culture, and it is worn by many today.

There have been instances where Maori have been refused service in licensed premises because of a general ban on tattoos, or a specific ban on facial tattoos. These have, in a number of cases, led to complaints to the former Race Relations Office and more recently (since the two organisations were merged) to the Human Rights Commission. One such complaint was received in 2001 from Kay Robin, of Gisborne, who was refused entry to Scotty’s Bar and Grill on the grounds of a "no facial or offensive tattoos" policy. Proceedings were filed in the Human Rights Review Tribunal, but the issue was eventually settled by a voluntary agreement involving the Director of Human Rights Proceedings, the plaintiff and the defendant.

The settlement reached included an acknowledgment by the bar owner that the "no facial" portion of his "no facial or offensive tattoos" policy was in breach of the indirect discrimination provision (Section 65) of the Human Rights Act in respect of the plaintiff’s moko, and that the implementation of the policy had caused the plaintiff humiliation, loss of dignity and injury to feelings because of the special taonga status of ta moko. The bar owner agreed that he would no longer continue to breach Section 65 of the Act by the use and implementation of a "no facial or offensive tattoos" policy and that he would pay the defendant $3000 as compensation for humiliation, loss of dignity and injury to her feelings. He agreed to remove the word "facial" from the sign displayed in his premises and not to add it to any similar sign in future.

The defendant had argued that under the Sale of Liquor Act 1989 he was "not obliged to serve liquor at any time to any person". However, this section of the Act is specifically subject to the Human Rights Act. The settlement in this case confirms the Commission’s view that it is contrary to the indirect discrimination Provisions of the Human Rights Act to decline to serve liquor to someone with a moko.

The Commission’s advice to bar owners, as well as other employers and proprietors, is to take note of this settlement as it sends a clear signal as to the meaning of the Act. It is our view that a person of Maori descent cannot be denied entry to or service in a licensed premises on the grounds that they are wearing a moko on any visible part of their body. Proprietors are advised to use their common sense in identifying moko, rather than seeking to question the authenticity of the moko or the ethnicity of the wearer. In general terms, the Commission advises caution in refusing service on the grounds of wearing any kind of bodily marking per se, and suggests that general references to reasonable standards of dress and appearance are less likely to be in breach of anti-discrimination provisions. Should other customers complain, we suggest they be respectfully told "Mate, this is New Zealand, it’s part of our culture".