TEU member Dr Shirley Barnett (Ngāti Tūwharetoa) is a lecturer in the School of Management and a research associate with Te Au Rangahau (Māori Business Research Centre) at Massey University. Here, Dr Barnett discusses the impact of Covid-19 on tangihanga leave and the work of TEU towards ensuring working people are allowed appropriate time to grieve for their loved one.

The Covid-19 pandemic and resulting lockdown period in Aotearoa caused immeasurable distress and strain to individuals and whānau across the country. With thousands of New Zealanders losing loved ones over lockdown, many were unable to attend tangihanga, funerals and farewells, and the grieving process was stunted for many.

Tangihanga, the ability to farewell a loved one, is a core part of Māori society and well-being. In Māori society, tangihanga have their own unique tikanga that vary from hapū to hapū according to geographical location and iwi conventions.

Tikanga are a customary system of values and practices that have developed over time by hapū and iwi and are deeply embedded in their social fabric and political frameworks. For example, a standard tangihanga can occur over three to four days, and in some instances five to seven days if the deceased is a rangatira within the iwi, and/or well-known in Māoridom generally.

Over lockdown, many whānau, hapū, iwi and colleagues of deceased loved ones were unable to hold and observe tangihanga in accordance with tikanga. With inter-regional travel limited, some were unable to return their loved one to their ancestral urupā, and restrictions on numbers in attendance at tangihanga and funerals meant many missed the opportunity to be present for the formal farewell and celebration of life.

TEU members experienced this pain first-hand, with the passing of TEU Kuia Kāterina Daniels just before level 4 lockdown, and less than 3 weeks later with TEU Tauheke Dr Te Huirangi Waikerepuru during lockdown.

The concern for the proper observance of tikanga was raised to me by a Te Uepū member at Massey University during Alert Level 4 lockdown. The concern for this member, and shared by many, related to leave granted by employers for tangihanga and bereavement. The question was raised: if somebody were to pass away during lockdown, and a staff member took time off during lockdown to grieve, would the individual be granted further time once lockdown restrictions had lifted, to observe tikanga, to grieve in the presence and support of whānau and friends, and to celebrate the life of their loved one?

The issue is not only one of tikanga Māori and tangihanga, but of the right for people to be able to grieve properly, to farewell, and to celebrate the life of those who have passed away, whether that be in the form of a memorial service, an unveiling, a wake, the coming together of whānau, or of tangihanga.

Recognising the need for people to be able to grieve properly in accordance with tikanga, tradition, and what works for them, is about our shared humanity and the promotion of mental and spiritual well-being. Employees should not have to face entering in to disputes with employers during an already difficult time, nor should they have to resort to using the sick leave or annual leave provisions available to them.

Tangihanga is a grieving process, but part of that process is also a celebration of the life of the person that has passed, and of moving forward into the future. It is not a particular, single moment in time, it has a history, a present and a future, and employers must recognise this.

TEU submitted in support of the Holidays (Bereavement Leave for Miscarriage) Amendment Bill and the associated bereavement leave provisions. These entitlements align with our whāinga and are particularly significant for Māori in that they highlight the importance of having provisions that allow the unique tikanga associated with tangihanga to be carried out.