Former Gloriavale residents were employees, not volunteers, court rules

The Employment Court has ruled six former Gloriavale residents were employees - not volunteers - while living in the reclusive West Coast Christian community.

In a decision released on Thursday, Employment Court Chief Judge Christina Inglis said she had "no doubt" the plaintiffs "worked extremely hard, and under punishing conditions".

"The plaintiffs were not volunteers when working on the teams. They expected to be rewarded for the work they undertook and they were rewarded for their work," the decision said. "They are accordingly not excluded from the gateway to minimum entitlements and protections on this basis.

"While I accept that a recognition of employment status may present some issues, notably requiring the application of minimum employment standards to individuals who had previously not been perceived as benefitting from such entitlements, the tail cannot be permitted to wag the dog."

An on-and-off hearing into the matter began last August when the former residents argued they were employees and not volunteers while living at Gloriavale.

"To say that Gloriavale is a Christian community is wrong, it is a cheap labour camp," one witness told the court.

In February, the hearing resumed - with Gloriavale choosing to represent themselves.

Its own leaders, including the overseeing shepherd, were called as witnesses.

"Some of the plaintiff's witnesses are endeavouring to paint me as some sort of unrestricted dictator or tyrant," Howard Temple said. "I am certainly not that."

The hearing then moved to Greymouth for a week, where one Gloriavale resident, in defence of the community, said: "I believe this whole case is an attack on our faith.

"I submit myself to the men in authority as a choice that I make," the resident said.

Just five journalists were subsequently granted special permission to be part of a carefully planned visit to Gloriavale, providing Judge Inglis and the media including Newshub an extraordinary look into life there. 

In her judgement on Thursday, Judge Inglis said the case had raised "difficult issues" about who exactly the plaintiffs' employer was - and reserved that decision.

"Generally speaking, it would be regrettable for a worker's claim for employment status to be defeated simply because they have proceeded against, for example, one corporate entity within a complex corporate structure only to find that the evidence discloses that another entity within the same structure was the true employer," she said. "The plaintiffs are entitled to costs, the quantum of which is reserved.

"The registrar is to convene a telephone directions conference with the representatives, and counsel appointed to assist the court, in four weeks' time to timetable next steps in these proceedings."