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Employment Court rules Gloriavale leavers are employees, legal experts weigh in

2.38pm on 25 May 2022

Interview by Jack Horsnell

Listen to the full interview 

On May 10, New Zealand's Employment Court reached a landmark decision against the Gloriavale religious community, classifying the work members do as employment, going against their claims that residents were volunteers.   

This comes after years of allegations against the Christian community that exposed a world of physical abuse and workplace violations, with children as young as six being made to work long hours at Gloriavale's many businesses. 

Dr Bill Hodge, an employment law expert, says the decision opens the door for other leavers to take further court action against Gloriavale over worker exploitation. 

"I think there will be a queue of cases that could come forward."

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

There have been several inquiries into the employment status of people living and working at Gloriavale over the past few years.

The Labour Inspectorate investigated in 2017 after concerns were raised by Charities Services, and again in 2020 after allegations of long working hours were made by two community members.

Both inquiries determined that no employment relationships existed within Gloriavale as defined by New Zealand employment law, so alleged employment law breaches fell outside its jurisdiction to investigate.

Dr Hodge says the Labour inspectors should have recognised that the "chores" required of Gloriavle members were a commercial activity. 

"In New Zealand, there's been a tradition of backing away from undue enforcement of commercial statutes against religious organisations."

Judge Inglis says the issue has not been fully resolved, and future judgments will focus on identifying which person or entity in Gloriavale's commercial structure is the employer. The courts will also look at whether the Labour Inspector breached any statutory duty to the plaintiffs in the way it conducted its investigation. 

Dr Hodge says Gloriavale should be taking a hard look at how they treat their young people, if nothing else because they will have a legal microscope placed over many of their activities that they got away with for a long time. 

"I would hope they would begin to apply new testament principles of love rather than capitalism and making as much money as possible on exploited labour."

The allegations against Gloriavale have also re-ignited demands for the community to lose its tax-exempt status.

Professor of Law Michael Littlewood says charities get preferential tax treatment on the basis that what they do is good for society.

"Gloriavale is a controversial case with many people questioning if they are doing any good at all. But if they are within the definition of a charity, they are entitled to these tax advantages." 

According to Littlewood, breaking the law doesn't necessarily disqualify Gloriavale from being a charity.

"Theoretically, an organisation could be pursuing charitable purposes, even if it was treating its own employees badly."

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 at the Employment Court hearing.

The leavers' trust wants Gloriavale's trust stripped of its charitable status, arguing that it is oppressive and does not meet the required standards.

Charities Services has previously rejected the trust's request to investigate Gloriavale's charity status but said it would wait for the outcome of the court hearing. 

Public interest journalism funded by NZ on Air.