Air New Zealand turnaround on tattoos overdue

2019-06-11 02:03:54

OPINION: Air New Zealand's decision to lift its blanket ban on visible tattoos for customer-facing staff feels like something that should have happened decades ago.

Surely most of us are well aware that tattoos aren't the sole domain of criminals and gang members liable to teach you a violent lesson for as little as looking at them the wrong way, and other scourges of society.

Plenty of successful upstanding citizens have them. Heroes even. Among Kiwis, Gin Wigmore and the All Blacks spring to mind and both have starred in Air New Zealand safety videos.

With research showing that one in five adult New Zealanders has at least one tattoo and a third of under 30s are inked, tattoos are part of mainstream New Zealand society - like it or lump it.

The reasons for getting a tattoo are of course many and varied. They can be traditional, cultural, religious, romantic or deeply personal. But for most, tattoos serve as a tangible symbol or reminder of something core to their identity, beliefs or values. Why should they be covered up as if they're something to be ashamed of?

In this day and age, people shouldn't have to hide who they are at work, much less conceal testaments to their cultural heritage. It is unlawful to deny employment based on race, ethnicity or religion, so when a tattoo is emblematic of one or more of those things, it follows that a just employer should respect it.

And yet until now, Air New Zealand has refused to employ anyone in a uniformed role with a visible tattoo, including those of cultural significance.

In 2013 Claire Nathan told Maori Television she was rejected from a job at the airline for having a tā moko (traditional Māori tattoo) on her forearm.

And in March Sydney Heremaia told the NZ Herald he was turned down from a customer service role with Air New Zealand at Whangārei Airport because of a tā moko on his shoulder, and tatau (Samoan tattoo) on his forearm.

That it has taken Air New Zealand until mid-2019 to allow employees to "express individuality or cultural heritage" by displaying tā moko and "non-offensive" tattoos at work - as chief executive Christopher Luxon put it - is concerning.

Freedom of expression, after all, is a fundamental human right. As the flagship carrier of a nation whose indigenous population has traditionally worn tā moko to mark their genealogy and heritage, Air New Zealand should have taken a stand long ago.

To be fair to the national carrier though, its new stance on tattoos is pretty progressive for the aviation industry, which seems to be stuck in a bit of a time warp in terms of staff attire and grooming standards.

Entering a plane cabin can feel a bit like stepping onto the set of The Stepford Wives: female flight attendants exude a hyper femininity with their carefully made up faces, lacquered hair and figure-hugging dresses that looks artificial and high-maintenance.

If they like the look, all power to them. But I have a sneaking expression that at least some would prefer a more casual and comfortable, albeit still professional, look. When so many other sectors have relaxed their dress codes (I doubt many scrubs- and Croc-clad nurses hanker for the days of starched hats and pinafores), why can't airlines?

A 2010 manual for Air New Zealand flight attendants revealed the stringency of the rules for female staff, prohibiting both no makeup and too much makeup as well as blue or pink eye shadow, bright red, pink, purple or orange lipstick, unnatural looking tans, scaly hands and smelly breath. Female staff were also told to "always pluck the hair between the brows".

Similarly, Jetstar's careers' website said attendants need to be "passionate about grooming and appearance". This is forcing women into a mould, not promoting diversity in the workplace or allowing freedom of expression.

Air New Zealand is considering changing grooming requirements for frontline staff as part of the design process for its new uniforms but, like with the tattoos, it feels like something that should have already happened. Other airlines, such as Virgin Atlantic, have dropped mandatory make-up requirements for flight attendants. If Air New Zealand is truly committed to embracing self-expression and "building a diverse and inclusive workplace that truly reflects the makeup of Aotearoa", staff shouldn't have to waste precious minutes each day trying to conform to an outdated ideal of what a flight attendant should look like.

I'm not suggesting Air New Zealand should do away with its uniforms, just that female employees should be free to tailor their hair and makeup to their own tastes, provided they still look neat and tidy. A more relaxed look would fit with the airline's easy, breezy "as-Kiwis-as-korus-and-Cookie-Times image" and staff would feel more like themselves at work.

In allowing staff to "proudly display their non-offensive tattoos at work", Air New Zealand has taken an important, if overdue, step in putting its money where its mouth is in terms of encouraging diversity and self-expression in the workplace.

I suspect it has taken the airline until now as it was worried about offending passengers under the misapprehension that tattoos are only worn by people you'd be terrified to be seated next to. But Air New Zealand - and indeed all airlines - are in the business of connecting people from different countries and cultures. They should be doing their utmost to promote cross-cultural communication and understanding.

Tattoos, after all, can be a great conversation starter. An overseas visitor who asks a flight attendant about his tā moko is likely to me met with an enlightening response. And enquiring about a cabin crew member's tattooed Tinker Bell wings might just elicit an entertaining yarn that teaches you something not just about her but the broader society in which she lives.

Luxon recognises that "there is an expectation that Air New Zealand will represent our country and our people authentically to the world," and allowing staff freedom of expression in terms of how they present themselves is a huge part of that.

Proud of its innovation in the technological space, Air New Zealand has a chance to prove itself progressive in the social issues space too.

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