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Tolerance crucial as New Zealand changes

29 August 2018

Over the last 20 years, New Zealand has become a very cosmopolitan country, with people from many religions, cultures, and countries now making up our population.

Most New Zealanders respect different religions and cultures and embrace the challenge of accommodating different beliefs and ways of doing things. Unfortunately this is not always the case, here or overseas.

A Swedish Muslim woman went to the Labour Court in Sweden after a job interview for a translator position went wrong. When the interviewer went to shake hands with 24-year-old Farah Alhajeh, she smiled, placed her hand on her heart, and explained that she had a religious objection to physical contact. The interviewer swiftly showed her to the lift and sent her on her way.

She said that as soon as she got to the elevator she cried. She said "It was like a punch in the face. It's the first time someone reacted, and it was a really harsh reaction."

She explained Muslims avoid physical contact with members of the opposite sex apart from immediate family members.

The potential employer, Semantix, said it was a defender of sex equality and couldn't hire someone who reacted differently to men and women when they offered a handshake in greeting. However, Alhajeh said she did not shake hands with anybody, male or female.

Should Alhajeh be forced to adopt the expectations of the dominant culture and shake hands when it would cause her distress as a Muslim?

Alhajeh won her case and received the equivalent of about NZ$6500 in compensation. The court said that the woman's refusal to shake hands was a religious manifestation that was protected under the European Convention on Human Rights.

In 2013, British Airways worker Nadia Eweida, a Coptic Christian from Twickenham, was sent home for wearing a silver cross on her necklace. She had been told to stop wearing her cross visibly as it was contrary to the airline's new clothing policy. The European Court of Human Rights said British Airways had not struck a fair balance between Eweida's religious beliefs and the company's wish to project a certain corporate image. Eweida's claim was successful and she was allowed to wear her cross at work.

Eweida, now 67, still works for British Airways but says that after she won her case they singled her out for mistreatment, with managers treating her rudely and harshly.

Eweida is bringing a new case against British Airways for this treatment.

As the many cultures throughout the world mix more and more, some people do not rise to the occasion, particularly if they are part of the dominant culture. Satnam Singh came to New Zealand from India to study English. He was struggling to pay rent and applied for a job with Scorpion Liquor in Auckland. He was offered a job by the manager, Shane Singh, who was a Fijian Indian, but no relation.

Satnam believed he could trust Shane because of his link with India. However there was no written employment agreement and Satnam was only paid between $6 and $7 an hour, and only paid intermittently.

Satnam was repeatedly sworn at and insulted at work. Shane asked another employee "why do these f ****** Indians keep long hair?" Later, when Shane asked Satnam the same question, he told Shane "We are from the Sikh religion." Shane laughed at Satnam.

After more abuse, to avoid derogatory comments from Shane, Satnam trimmed his hair and beard and wore a hat over his turban.

One evening Shane called Satnam an "f****** Indian" and hit him on the head with a clipboard, knocking off the cap Satnam was wearing and the small turban underneath.

He punched him in the head. When Satnam told Shane he wouldn't work at the liquor shop any longer and wanted his pay, Shane responded "I already have four or five f****** Indians. F*** off." When Satnam said he would be back for his pay Shane put up his fists and said "If I see you again you will lose your turban and your teeth".

Satnam was very distressed by this and experienced depression and thoughts of suicide. His parents felt he had shamed them by trimming his hair. His father said Satnam should never come home and that he was dead to them.

This case illustrates the terrible suffering a person can be subjected to when there is an imbalance of power between an employer and a vulnerable worker. Satnam was in a new country, desperate for money, and the result was catastrophic for him.

A labour inspector took a wages claim on Satnam's behalf to the Employment Relations Authority. Satnam received wage arrears for what he should have been paid and a modest penalty.

Satnam took a separate case before the Human Rights Review Tribunal for racial harassment in his employment and attacks on symbols of his religion. The Tribunal made an order restraining Shane and ordered both Shane and Scorpion Liquor to implement a training programme on human rights and their obligations. Satnam received $45,000 in damages.

There may be a difference of opinion over whether a person should be able to wear, say, a crucifix on top of their airline uniform. However no decent person would support the treatment of this young Indian student in Auckland. New Zealand is becoming more diverse.

Tolerance, respect and understanding are essential to the future of a decent New Zealand.

Cullen - The Employment Law Firm was one of the first eleven law firms in New Zealand approved to provide employment law services to Government and the public sector.

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