Auckland cafe's sign telling employees to speak English 'taken out of context' - race relations commissioner

A sign telling cafe employees to speak English "at all times" has received widespread vitriol on social media for its "racist" undertones - yet New Zealand's race relations commissioner says the owner of the Auckland eatery acted "reasonably".

Commissioner Meng Foon, who himself speaks four languages fluently, including te Reo, told The AM Show the sign was "not racist" despite the heavy backlash.

The sign, discovered by patrons at Mount Eden's Circus Circus cafe, gained traction on social media for instructing employees to speak English "out of respect for your colleagues". Foon says it's clear the message was purely intended for health and safety purposes, regarding efficient communication in the kitchen. 

"It's not racist," he reiterated to The AM Show host Ryan Bridge.

However, Foon noted that the sign could be considered as "impinging upon human rights" in regards to freedom of expression through one's language.

"You're not allowed to discriminate on ethnicity. So in this case, bad taste," he explained. 

The sign at Auckland's Circus Circus cafe has received widespread backlash.
The sign at Auckland's Circus Circus cafe has received widespread backlash. Photo credit: Twitter

In a statement to the Daily Mail on Wednesday, Circus Circus general manager Nixon Shrhan confirmed the sign was purely intended to signal good communication. 

"Everyone is from different countries and ethnicities, the reason [for speaking English] is to know what everyone is saying," Shrhan said.

Foon says in this instance, it's important any health and safety protocol is clearly communicated to employees during staff training - implying that if staff had been instructed to speak English in the kitchen during their induction, there should be no reason for the sign.

"It's important the instructions are clear, particularly in health and safety. If English is the language for health and safety [purposes], then it should be. But it should be clear when they do their staff training," he said.

"Perhaps the sign could have been a bit more targeted, in terms of 'for health and safety reasons' you must speak English in the kitchen... the guy that owns the restaurant, he needs to be a bit clearer in messaging. Staff training is important."

Foon says the sign has been "taken out of context" by outraged social media users.

"Unfortunately, that's how social media works, so there's not a lot we can do about those people.

"I think he's acted reasonably in terms of ensuring that there's health and safety in his kitchen, that there are clear instructions in terms of the working conditions in this kitchen - if he's [allowing] freedom of speech in terms of other languages, [then] great."

In a statement to Newshub on Wednesday, a spokesperson for the Human Rights Commission confirmed it is an "internationally recognised human right" to use one's language in the workplace.

"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," the Commission says. 

"It would be hard for an employer to justify a total 'English only' policy when the reason for that was to create 'workplace harmony' or because it was part of 'company culture'."