Ex-members welcome Employment Court ruling over ‘dangerous’ Gloriavale work

Three members of the reclusive Gloriavale Christian community working long hours from the age of six were employees, the Employment Court has ruled.

The landmark decision about the “strenuous, difficult and sometimes dangerous” work done by children is likely to have significant ramifications for the community on the South Island’s West Coast.

Gloriavale leavers outside Law Courts in Christchurch

The people who brought the case outside the Law Courts in Christchurch. Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

One of the young men who brought the case, Daniel Pilgrim, said he was ecstatic about the “mind-blowing” decision.

“Voices in there that have been silenced for so many years, their voices are finally being heard and there’s some legal recognition. Something’s happening, it’s amazing,” Pilgrim said.

In February the court heard evidence about working conditions at Gloriavale, in a case brought by Pilgrim, Hosea Courage and Levi Courage, who sought a declaration they were employees, not volunteers.

In a decision published today, Chief Judge Christina Inglis found all three were employees from the age of six until they left Gloriavale.

They worked regularly and for long hours, under strict control, primarily for the benefit of Gloriavale’s commercial businesses.

Judge Inglis found the work they did between the ages of six and 14 could not be described as “chores” because of the commercial nature of the tasks, they were done over an extended period of time and they were “strenuous, difficult and sometimes dangerous”.

Parents had little influence and no final say over where, when and for how long their children worked.

The court found the work done when they were 15 and still legally obliged to be at school could not be considered educational work experience or volunteering, and agreements labelling them as “associate partners” did not change the substance of the relationship.

“The fact that the work was undertaken within a religious community and according to a particular set of beliefs and values did not mean that it could escape close scrutiny by external agencies or avoid minimum employment standards if they applied,” the court said.

Judge Inglis reserved a decision on the costs the men were entitled to.

Hosea Courage said he felt vindicated by the court’s ruling.

“It has entirely backed up everything that we have said – that Gloriavale was not a nice place to be, it treated its workers poorly and exploited the people in there for its personal gain.

“I feel the exploitation there may not be able to be stopped unless it is closed down.”

Hosea Courage and Daniel Pilgrim - Gloriavale leavers

Hosea Courage, left, and Daniel Pilgrim. Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

The Labour Inspectorate carried out an inquiry into the employment status of people at Gloriavale in 2017 after concerns raised by Charities Services, and again in 2020 after two community members raised allegations of long working hours.

The inspectorate found they could not legally be considered employees, so alleged employment law breaches fell outside its jurisdiction to investigate.

Pilgrim said the inspectorate was “hopeless”.

“I understand that it was going to be messy for them to step in and get involved and I believe that’s why they didn’t. It was just a bit of a cop-out really. Hopefully they will actually start doing their job,” he said.

Gloriavale leaver Daniel Pilgrim

Daniel Pilgrim is critical of the Labour Inspectorate’s work. Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

Judge uneasy over ‘where the power lies’

Judge Inglis raised concerns about a document called What We Believe – a roadmap for life within Gloriavale.

“Loud alarm bells ought, in my view, to have been ringing from even a cursory reading of What We Believe and various other documents,” she said.

“That is because the documentation makes it very clear where the power lies; that the leadership group holds absolute power and control, including in relation to work, and that members of the community submit to the leaders; and that members were not to report concerns to external agencies.”

Human rights lawyer Stephen Patterson said the judge’s comments spoke volumes.

“We’re just pleased that the Employment Court has been able to peel back the layers of the onion, understand the deceptive practices that have gone on and get to the truth,” he said.

Gloriavale leavers outside Law Courts in Christchurch

Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

Future judgements will focus on identifying the employer within Gloriavale’s structure and whether the Labour Inspector breached any statutory duties.

Gloriavale Leavers’ Support Trust manager Liz Gregory said she was delighted the members’ employment status had been legally recognised.

“The impact of this on people’s lives in Gloriavale is not to be under-estimated. We’re talking about the babies whose mums can’t look after them because they work, we’re talking about children who’ve been working from a young age whose childhoods have been stolen from them,” she said.

Even though the Gloriavale case was unusual, Gregory said the decision was embarrassing for the Labour Inspectorate.

“They had credible and really good information in front of them and they just didn’t pick up on the alarm bells that people have been ringing for years.

“The judge has made it clear in the judgement that other agencies need to sit up, take notice.”

Liz Gregory from Gloriavale Leavers Support Trust - Employment Court has ruled three members of the Gloriavale Christian community were employees

Liz Gregory says the decision is a wakeup call for the Labour Inspectorate. Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

Gloriavale’s leaders said they were reviewing the Employment Court’s findings.

“The leaders are committed to bringing positive change to the community for the benefit of those that live there,” their lawyer said in a statement.

“They will carefully review the findings of the Employment Court and consider what steps they will take in response to it.”

Six women who are former Gloriavale members have also won the right to have their case heard in court in September.

The Gloriavale Leavers’ Support Trust has written to Charities Services asking it to examine the Christian Church Community Trust as a result of allegations of abuse aired at the Employment Court hearing.

The leavers’ trust wants Gloriavale’s trust stripped of its charitable status on the grounds it is oppressive and does not meet the required standards.

Charities Services rejected the trust’s request to investigate Gloriavale’s charity status in 2020, following an earlier investigation in 2016, but said it would wait for the outcome of the court hearing before deciding whether to launch another inquiry.

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