An employment court decision that found three former Gloriavale members were employees will have ramifications for at least two government regulators.

In a decision released on Tuesday following a hearing in February, the chief judge of the court, Christina Inglis, found the three plaintiffs were employed from age six until they left the West Coast Christian community.

The three men, Hosea Courage, Daniel Pilgrim and Levi Courage, had also been seeking a declaration against the Labour Inspectorate, the employment standards regulator, for failing to uphold its statutory duties. The issue will be addressed in future judgements.

The inspectorate carried out investigations in 2017 and 2020-21, which both concluded it had no ability to intervene because Gloriavale members weren’t considered employees.

Inglis found differently. Her judgment also accepted that Gloriavale members were under strict instructions about interacting with external agencies – in evidence, one former member said they were told to say they were volunteers.

Gloriavale has a range of commercial companies controlled by either its charitable trust, the Christian Church Community Trust, or a holding company for an entity called Christian Partners.

As detailed in the judgment, the three plaintiffs worked for various companies from age six.

“Each of the plaintiffs was subjected to rigorous, sometimes violent, supervision in their work,” the judgment said.

“If they were not working hard enough or fast enough, they were hit.”

Access to child labour was a significant factor contributing to the success of the Gloriavale businesses, Inglis found. 

Her judgment also canvassed the practice of depriving people of food for not working hard enough, and the control exerted by the Gloriavale leadership, which extended to determining where members would work.

BusinessDesk has approached Gloriavale for comment.

Inglis found the three plaintiffs weren’t volunteers as defined in the Employment Relations Act, because they were working in exchange for food, shelter and a continued place in the community.

The decision will have major ramifications for a number of government agencies.

As Inglis noted at the end of her judgment: “The evidence heard by the court, some of it uncontested or confirmed by Gloriavale’s witnesses, raises serious concerns across a broad range of subjects.”

Charities and employment watchdogs on notice

Following the employment court hearing, the Gloriavale Leavers’ Support Trust made a request to Charities Services to reinvestigate the Christian Church Community Trust, the charitable trust behind the community.

Charities Services previously investigated the trust in 2015. It found the trust and trustees may have engaged in conduct amounting to serious wrongdoing under the Charities Act but decided to work with the trust to improve its compliance instead of pursuing deregistration. 

In a statement, Charities Services general manager Mike Stone said the organisation was assessing the employment court judgment and its implications for the trust in terms of the charity meeting its obligations under the Charities Act.

It would decide if further inquiries were needed after this, he said.

“This process may require consultation with other responsible agencies.”

Labour Inspectorate national manager Stu Lumsden said the inspectorate welcomed the court decision, adding it redefined employment law.

“This ruling provides greater clarity in applying the Employment Relations Act when ascertaining an individual’s employment status,” he said.

He said the court had clarified the jurisdiction of the inspectorate. They were now able to work with the three plaintiffs to take enforcement action and calculate arrears owed to them.

The inspectorate would be approaching the relevant Gloriavale employer once the court issued its judgment on which entity that was, and would work to determine any impact beyond the three plaintiffs. 

Lumsden said the inspectorate would continue working with other agencies because taking action on issues at Gloriavale required a joint response. 

The 2020-21 inspectorate investigation into the employment status of Gloriavale members, obtained by BusinessDesk under the Official Information Act, shows the inspectorate had advice from Crown Law confirming its belief at the time that members were not employees.

“While work in Gloriavale shares some of the characteristics of employment, it is clear that the intention of the parties is to create a sharing community with religious beliefs as the focal point, and that work is a means of providing for the whole community,” the report said.