Air Canada cabin crews no longer forced to cover ‘discreet’ tattoos or remove ear or nose piercings: arbitrator

The union said that forcing workers to cover their discreet tattoos and remove their additional piercings caused them stress and anxiety

Christopher Nardi  •  May 21, 2021

Air Canada cabin crews may be a little more decorated from now on.
Air Canada cabin crews may be a little more decorated from now on. PHOTO BY BRYAN PASSIFIUME/POSTMEDIA

OTTAWA – In a reflection of changing social norms, a labour arbitrator has ruled that cabin crew on Air Canada flights should be allowed to sport discreet but visible tattoos, as well as piercings in their ears and nose without fear of disciplinary action.

Until last week, Air Canada’s personnel policy did not formally allow any cabin personnel from having any visible tattoos and piercings (minus a pair of matching stud earrings) while on duty.

But in a brief but impactful ruling, labour arbitrator William Kaplan put an end to much of the policy described by Air Canada’s cabin crew union as “unreasonable and discriminatory.”

So going forward, don’t be surprised if you see Air Canada and Air Canada Rouge cabin crew sporting any of the following, as now allowed by the arbitrator:

  • Henna tattoos, a temporary form of body art generally using a paste from certain plants, so long as they are worn for any religious, cultural or celebratory reason.
  • Visible but “discreet” tattoos anywhere except on most of the head or neck, so long as they are not offensive or refer to “nudity, hatred, violence, drugs, alcohol, discrimination or harassment.”

Kaplan also makes significant changes to both airlines’ very strict policy on piercings by bumping the maximum of acceptable earrings per ear from one to three, as well as allowing a single nose piercing.

But not anything goes in terms of piercings. For earrings, they must be made of either plain gold, rose gold, silver, diamond, wood or pearl and must be a stud “no larger than a quarter inch” or a hoop that is no bigger than a Canadian dime, the arbitrator ruled.

Nose piercings must also be either a stud or hoop that must fit “flush or snug against the nostril.” Any visible adornment that stretches the ear or nose in any way, such as spacers, gauges, plugs or tunnels are still forbidden.

In his ruling, Kaplan disagreed with Air Canada’s assertion that their policies were “reasonable and not discriminatory” and that they were necessary to both protect the companies’ image as well as ensure customers’ views and values were being respected.

“I agree that the Companies’ image is important to their brands, and that customers’ views and values are important.  Indeed, other airlines have policies regarding tattoos and piercings,” Kaplan wrote.

“However, it is not clear that the Companies’ tattoo and piercings policies, in their present form, are necessary to advance their business interests,” he added, noting that the changes are also to ensure the airlines’ policies comply with the collective bargaining agreement and the Canadian Human Rights Act.

In his ruling, the arbitrator also requires Air Canada to expunge any disciplinary action relating to the now-defunct tattoo and piercing policies from impacted employees’ records.

Kaplan’s decision formalizes an agreement between the Air Canada Component of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) and the airline reached after the union filed a grievance back in 2019 against the company’s personal grooming standards.

On social media, the union said that forcing workers to cover their discreet tattoos and remove their additional piercings caused them stress and anxiety.

“We are extremely pleased we were able to work with our national carrier to come to an agreement on tattoos, henna and piercings being visible in the workplace,” local union president Wesley Lesosky said in a statement.

“This decision is good news for our members. It’s a precedent-setting award not just in the airline sector but across the board, and reflects an evolving and more accepting view towards free expression in the workplace.”

In a statement, Air Canada said the ruling is a sign of the times, where visible tattoos and multiple piercings are increasingly accepted without being viewed as a mark of unprofessionalism.

“Air Canada accepts this ruling as it provides clarity with respect to this matter. Social norms evolve and as a consequence corporate policies do change over time to reflect these, so we will be updating our policy accordingly and implementing this decision,” spokesperson Peter Fitzpatrick wrote in a statement.

Citing confidentiality reasons, both CUPE and Air Canada declined to say how many employees had been disciplined in the past for visible tattoos and unacceptable piercings or what kind of sanctions they faced. But Lesosky said no financial compensation would be required by any employees.

He also hopes workers for other airlines with similarly restrictive tattoo and piercing are encouraged to speak up thanks to this case.

“This is the first ruling of its type for the sector, and certainly this would open the door for other groups within the airline sector to pursue a similar course of action,” the union president said.