Te reo Māori was first recognised as an official language in Aotearoa New Zealand in the Māori Language Act 1987.  This was replaced more recently by the Te Ture mō Te Reo Māori Act 2016 which affirms the status of the Māori language as a taonga of iwi and Māori, a language valued by the nation, and important to New Zealand’s identity.

Despite the fact that Māori has been an official language for some 35 years, how and when it is used is still a sensitive topic for some.   Recently a manager at a Havelock North McDonalds told an employee to lessen his use of “kia ora” at work because “some people might not like it”.  The employee’s father expressed his disappointment at this and was quoted as saying “it was really demeaning to hear that my boy had to be submitted to that situation and for me, it was racism disguised in sugar-coated words”.  He also described the incident as reflecting “casual racism”, suggesting that this was ingrained in our society.

McDonald was quick to distance itself from this incident issuing a statement saying that it supported the use of te reo Māori by staff and customers in its restaurants and had launched an investigation.

Then last week East Coast Bays MP, and the new Minister of Justice, Kiritapu Allan, created controversy when she said that she would not “tolerate tokenistic use of te reo” by government agencies as an attempt to show cultural competency.  Her words were apparently misinterpreted by someone within the Department of Conservation as expressing a view that te reo should not be used except where there were no English equivalents, and that te reo words should not be sprinkled through documents otherwise written in English.

As an intelligent wahine Māori  and advocate for te reo Māori, there can be little doubt that Allan’s statements would have been carefully considered and well informed.  However, the furore created as a result shows how complex and sensitive the issue still is.

During the past few years we have been encouraged to use te reo and embrace the Māori language as part of our usual conversation. Consistent with this many businesses have endeavoured to incorporate Māori words and greetings into their communications and meeting protocols.  We fully expect to be greeted with “kia ora” and farewelled with “mā te wā” on any Air New Zealand plane.  It is also increasingly common for Courts and business meetings to start with a karakia in te reo, and for the people present to be expected to deliver a brief mihi by way of introduction.

This brings us to the question, is it appropriate, and lawful, for an employer to instruct employees not to use te reo in workplaces? 

The list of prohibited grounds of discrimination set out in the Human Rights Act 1993 includes a person’s ethnic or national origins.  In employment, it is unlawful to subject an employee to detriment on these grounds or to treat them less favourably.

The Human Rights Commission website speaks to “the right to enjoy one’s culture and to use one’s own language”.  It further suggests that “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”.

An employer is entitled to issue lawful and reasonable instructions and there may be good reasons for an employer preferring employees to use a single language in some instances, including where they are communicating with customers or for health and safety reasons.  However, a “blanket ban” on the use of te reo, or any language for that matter, is unlikely to be lawful and reasonable.  The Human Rights Commission website describes this in the following way;

“It would be difficult to justify a total “English only” policy if the sole purpose for the policy was to promote workplace harmony or because it was part of “company culture”.  Preventing employees from using languages other than English during staff breaks would be hard to justify”.

Each workplace will be different and will have its own policy and culture.  But what recent events demonstrate is that there needs to be a more open discussion about this issue.  In the wake of the media storm surrounding Allan’s comments, she posted on social media that the statements attributed to her were “absolutely inaccurate”, but declined to speak further about the matter. 

I for one would be keen to hear more from the likes of Allan about what she intended and why, because many non-Māori in Aotearoa New Zealand are enthusiastic about embracing our country’s indigenous language and culture, but want to do this the right way.  An informed discussion about what is appropriate, and in what context, would be helpful to ensure those of us wanting to embrace te reo Māori can do so in an authentic manner.