Six ex-Gloriavale women declared employees by Employment Court
Chief Judge Inglis of the Employment Court has delivered her anticipated decision declaring six Gloriavale women as employees for their time at the remote Westland Christian community.
Serenity Pilgrim, Pearl Valor, Rose Standtrue, Virginia Courage, Anna Courage, and Crystal Loyal referred to as the “Gloriavale Six” by the media, were all born into Gloriavale and remained there until leaving between 2017 and 2021. From the age of about 6 years’ old they helped in the communities’ kitchen, laundry, and sewing facilities. By the age of 15, they had all left school to work full time in groups called “Teams” which fulfilled the domestic needs of the community. For example, in 2018, the Teams produced on average 11,000 meals and washed 17,000 items of laundry per week.
The evidence showed that the working environment was “unrelenting, grinding, hard, and physically and psychologically demanding”.
After leaving the Community the women made a complaint to the Labour Inspector regarding the working conditions they had faced. Two investigations were completed in 2017 and then in 2020/2021 but did not result in a finding that the Gloriavale women were employees. This led to the women escalating matters to the Employment Court. They are also simultaneously suing the Labour Inspectorate for breaching their statutory duties which will be heard separately.
The Employment Relations Act 2000 excludes certain workers, such as volunteers, from being categorised as employees. Volunteers are defined as workers who do not expect to be rewarded for their work and do not receive any reward for their work.
Gloriavale argued that the women were volunteers. Despite not earning wages, the women received food, shelter, clothing, religious support and guidance, and the promise of spiritual redemption against the threat of eternal damnation. The evidenced showed that high value was placed on these factors, likewise with Gloriavale’s reliance on the Teams for their work in the communities facilities.
The Chief Judge was satisfied that the women were not volunteers as they did expect to be rewarded for their work and they did in fact receive reward for this work. However, the women were not automatically declared employees because they were not volunteers.
In determining whether an employment relationship existed between the women and Gloriavale, the Chief Judge was required to examine all relevant factors when considering the real nature of the relationship. The Chief Judge considered the following factors demonstrated that an employment relationship did exist with the six women:
- While many current residents of Gloriavale demonstrated a strong willingness to work, in reality the women had little choice about whether they work or not. If they refused to work they would be required to leave the community and lose their family, friends, and everything they had known in life.
- The evidence recorded the women’s subservience to the Overseeing Shepherd and male leadership group in all things including their work. Working was an expectation, and they were rostered on the Teams from 16 years old. At work they could not freely move between Teams or areas ie. from the kitchen to the laundry without asking for approval.
- The Chief Judge compared the working condition to that of a large scale hostile. There were commercial sized kitchens and industrial scale equipment. Both current and former residents provided evidence that the work of the Teams was essential to the operation of the community. The Chief Judge recognised that this type of work would be generally paid for if outside of the community.
The Court rejected Gloriavale’s argument that the women were merely doing work “domestic” in nature. Nor was it accepted that the work was done for each of the women’s family or some kind of notional family. Relatedly, the Chief Judge recognised that the community’s way of life and religious tenets were relevant in determining the employment status of the women, but it was ultimately not decisive.
Overall, the Court determined that the women were subject to strict direction and control akin to an employment relationship.
This decision only applies to the six women and not all current Gloriavale members. The women will be entitled to minimum employment entitlements, including minimum wage, annual leave, and sick pay. However, the Court still needs to determine which entity or person was the employer of the women and therefore liable to pay the minimum entitlements. Due to the complex organisation structure, the Court adjourned to allow for further evidence and arguments to be raised in this respect.
This decision shows that the Employment Relations Authority and Employment Courts will look past the labels used by parties to determine the real nature of the relationship. In conjunction with the recent Uber decision, it illustrates an increasing focus on ensuring that groups of workers are not being exploited and are receiving the minimum employment entitlements.
The decision also highlights that rewarding a worker in means other than money does not preclude them from being classed as an employee. This is especially relevant for not-for-profit organisations who have volunteers and workers who exchange their time for services.
Gloriavale has stated that they will be appealing the decision, claiming “that the decision will have a significant effect on how faith-based communities, iwi, and whanau choose to live and structure their household responsibilities”. This was recognised in the decision where the Chief Judge said:
“The Court’s role is confined to determining employment status and whether workers are able to access minimum entitlements and protections, not spiritual issues or matters of religious dogma.”
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