By Jean Edwards of RNZ
Workplace inspectors will again visit Gloriavale and the charities regulator has launched a new investigation following a breakthrough Employment Court ruling on child labour at the reclusive Christian community.
Government agencies are under pressure to act after the court found children as young as six were employees toiling for long hours on farms and in factories doing difficult and sometimes dangerous work.
The three young men who brought the case – Levi Courage, Hosea Courage and Daniel Pilgrim – have described the ruling as a turning point in their employment fight that could result in big compensation pay-outs.
RNZ spoke to Levi Courage on the road to Gloriavale, on a pre-arranged trip to see his parents and eight siblings who remain with the secretive West Coast sect.
“I guess it’s more of a victory trip now,” he said.
“I’ve been back a few times, but every time it’s really triggering going back and seeing all those people that have beaten you. It’s quite hurtful when you go there and your own family won’t say hello to you because you’re not allowed to.”
The court’s chief judge found that ready access to child labour constituted a significant factor in the success of Gloriavale’s business model.
Children worked long hours, sometimes up to 70 hours a week, and were hit, denied food or publicly shamed if they did not work hard or fast enough.
The Labour Inspectorate twice found Gloriavale members were volunteers.
Workplace Minister Michael Wood said WorkSafe inspectors would visit Gloriavale soon.
“WorkSafe, who have been very engaged and have issued 10 improvement notices over the last year-and-a-half or so, will be conducting a visit to the site again in the short-term in response to the ruling to ensure that workplace standards are being applied where they should be,” he said.
Wood met officials from WorkSafe, the Labour Inspectorate and Crown Law to analyse the implications of the ruling, which he said had changed the legal landscape.
“Part of the challenge that agencies have had to date is that there has not been legal clarity about the employment status of these people and that has to some degree constricted the ability of agencies like the Labour Inspectorate to take enforcement action,” he said.
The charities regulator has also opened an investigation into Gloriavale’s Christian Church Community Trust as a result of the court judgement.
To remain registered, a charity must not engage in conduct that constitutes serious wrong-doing under the legislation.
Charities Services general manager Mike Stone told Checkpoint evidence of unpaid child labour, beatings and the withholding of food were deeply concerning.
“We’re all deeply concerned about what that Employment Court judgement has delivered and consequently, that’s the reason why we’ve decided to open an investigation,” he said.
Stone said an organisation stripped of its charitable status would lose tax benefits and donee status.
“That could mean there would be financial implications for that entity moving forward. It would be unfair or inappropriate of me to comment on what they might be,” he said.
Levi Courage was born into the community and worked from a young age, doing morning milkings when he was six or seven years old, then on a farm and later in Gloriavale’s honey business.
He said he was treated like a slave, injured on the job and went without food.
“Often times, yes, we were beaten and if we didn’t work hard enough we wouldn’t get dinner that night. Your boss for that day would go and talk to your parents and tell them that you couldn’t eat because you hadn’t worked hard enough,” he said.
A two-metre fall from a ladder onto a metal pole left him limping for two months, but he was not given any time off.
Courage said others deserved compensation for “messed up” childhoods.
“I’d just like them to be paid for what they’ve had to go through. Gloriavale should be forking it over willingly, but they’re not, because they don’t believe they’re entitled to it,” he said.
Isaac Pilgrim left Gloriavale in 2018 because of the way his children were treated.
Four of them were put to work, one of whom ended up with pneumonia in hospital after working on a farm in torrential winter rain with no wet weather gear at the age of 10.
Pilgrim said his children were also hit and denied food, but he and other parents had no control over the work they did.
“We often raised concerns with the leadership when they didn’t come in from work by eight o’clock at night, they were still out working. We were just told we were being selfish and un-community-minded,” he said.
Pilgrim cautioned government agencies against rushing in without understanding the Gloriavale mindset.
“There will be a lot of parents who are scared that their kids are going to be taken off them. It’s a situation that’s going to need to be handled carefully,” he said.
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