Using your rights

Discrimination happens when someone is treated unfairly or less favourably than another person in the same or similar circumstances. You don’t have to put up with behaviour you don’t like and discrimination is often repeated unless action is taken. It may impact on how you feel about work, study or accessing services.

Employers also have a responsibility to take steps to prevent discrimination and harassment and to respond to complaints. This includes harassment by employees or clients.

You may have been harassed or discriminated if someone: makes offensive remarks or jokes about your race, colour, ethnicity or nationality; mimics the way you speak, e.g. if you have an accent; calls you racist names; shows you offensive material in the workplace; or deliberately mispronounces your name.

Discrimination may also be unintentional. The person who is being offensive may be unaware of its effect, but they can still be held responsible. What is important is how the behaviour affects you or others.

What you can do about discrimination

You should firstly keep a record of incidents you find offensive. It's also a good idea to talk it over with someone you trust and who will keep the information confidential. This may help clarify your best course of action.

Speak to the person who is harassing you and tell them you want them to stop, otherwise you will complain. You can do this in person, in a letter, or with a union or other representative. If this doesn’t work, or is inappropriate, you can seek advice and assistance from:

  • a harassment contact person (many workplaces have a harassment policy)
  • a manager or school counsellor
  • the Human Rights Commission
  • your union representative or a lawyer
  • a professional disciplinary body
  • the police
  • the Employment Relations Service (if you have been harassed at work).
  • Phone 0800 20 90 20.

Other organisations and individuals who can help you with initial advice and clarification include your local Member of Parliament or Community Law Centre.

What the Commission can do

We can advise you on whether your complaint is covered by the Human Rights Act and if it is we can help with mediation.

If mediation doesn’t work, we can advise you on your legal options. Learn more in our Enquiries, Complaints and Support section, or call our Infoline on 0800 496 877. Our service is free and confidential.

The main focus of our service is on resolving disputes involving unlawful discrimination, such as on the grounds of age, gender, ethnicity, or disability. But we can also help you with advice on broader human rights issues.

What happens if you think your human rights have been breached

If you think you have suffered a breach of your human rights, our Enquiries, Complaints and Support section has more information about how we can help, and your options.

If your complaint involves discrimination and we cannot resolve it informally, you will be entitled to ask the Office of Human Rights Proceedings to provide you with free legal representation.

If you have further questions about the laws that protect your rights you can view our Frequently Asked Questions section.

What laws protect your rights

The Treaty of Waitangi and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples can both be used to support and assert your rights. They can be used in advocacy on issues or to guide your own activities, policies and decisions. 

Quoting the articles and using the language of rights can be used to strengthen an argument for better realisation of indigenous rights. For example, when dealing with issues to do with education, Article 14 of the Declaration affirms the right of indigenous people to appropriate education and to educate their own people, while Articles 2 and 3 of the Treaty concern protection of taonga, and the right to equal opportunities and outcomes.

Both the Treaty and the Declaration stress the importance of partnership, participation, cooperation and good faith. As such they provide a framework for State agencies to involve indigenous peoples in decisions and to work together to improve outcomes.

The key avenue for dealing with issues relating to breaches of the Treaty is the Waitangi Tribunal.

At the international level, a number of United Nations expert bodies play a role in promoting and upholding indigenous rights.  These include:

In 2014, the United Nations World Conference on Indigenous Peoples (WCIP) was held, bringing together indigenous peoples and State governments (including New Zealand). The outcome statement adopted by the UN General Assembly reaffirms support for the Declaration.

Racial harassment

Racial harassment is serious and is unlawful under the Human Rights Act. Racial harassment can include making offensive remarks about a person’s race, mimicking the way they speak, making jokes about their race or calling them names. Learn more here. You can also read the Commission's Racial Harassment Guide.

Your rights in the workplace

Under the Human Rights Act, it is unlawful for an employer to treat an employee less favourably because of their ethnicity or national origin. As such, a person of Māori descent may not be denied employment because they wear moko visibly. Learn more here.

This right also allows you to use your native tongue, as someone’s first language is usually related to their ethnicity so if an employer tries to stop someone from using their first language, that may be discrimination. Learn more here. The Commission has published an information sheet on this issue called English language only’ policies in the workplace.

Wearing taonga at work

Discrimination on the grounds of religious belief and/or ethnic or national origins is not allowed under the Human Rights Act and the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act. This means that if your workplace does not let you wear items like taonga it may be unlawful discrimination. Learn more here.

Māori Representation in government

The Human Rights Act affirms that we all have the right to the equal enjoyment of civil and political rights. Building on this, the Local Government Electoral Amendment Act 2002 extended the option of Māori wards or constituencies to all regional councils and territorial local authorities. Read our report on Māori representation in local government here

Positive discrimination

Both the Human Rights Act and the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act recognise that certain groups may need to be treated differently to help them achieve equality with others. This includes things such as university entry quotas for Maori and Pacific people. Learn more and read our Guideline to measure equality here.

Celebrating your rights

Māori are the tangata whenua, the indigenous people, of New Zealand and Māori culture is an integral part of Kiwi life.  The Commission facilitates a number of programmes, projects, and events that allow us to celebrate our nations rich culture and heritage: