The Employment Court has found Gloriavale commune members on the West Coast are employees, not volunteers.
Three former members took the case to the Employment Court of New Zealand in February.
They were challenging a Labour Inspectorate ruling that found they were volunteers and were, therefore, not entitled to pay or employment rights.
Documents signed by members suggested they did not intend to enter into an employment relationship at the commune, which is the reason why the inspectorate refused to investigate long working hours.
However, a judgement released today by Chief Judge Christina Inglis has found that the three plaintiffs - Hosea Courage, Daniel Pilgrim and Levi Courage - were considered employees from the age of six. She looked at their work across three age brackets – (6-14, 15, 16+)
"Each of the three plaintiffs was an employee in each age bracket referred to above. None of them were volunteers within the meaning of s 6 of the Act."
In regards to their time as children she writes “I find that the plaintiffs were employees during the first age bracket; they were not doing chores and they were not volunteers”.
"I do not accept the Gloriavale defendants’ characterisation of work undertaken in this period of the plaintiffs’ lives as “chores” which might normally be required of a child by their caregiver. Nor do I accept that the reference to “work” within Gloriavale, in terms of what the plaintiffs did, held some sort of special meaning. It was work as work is commonly understood."
The court reiterated that the substance of a relationship and how it operated, rather than the label attached to it or what the parties believed the relationship to be, should be used to answer whether someone is an employee.
"The fact that the work was undertaken within a religious community, and according to a particular set of beliefs and values, did not mean that it could escape close scrutiny by external agencies or avoid minimum employment standards if they applied."
During the two-week trial, the court heard testimony about some of the discipline and conditions imposed on the plaintiffs as children.
"Each of the plaintiffs was subjected to rigorous, sometimes violent, supervision in their work. If they were not working hard enough or fast enough they were hit. On one occasion Hosea Courage was struck six times with a shovel handle, with sufficient force to leave bruising that lasted for several days."
In her judgement Inglis said “Loud alarm bells ought, in my view, to have been ringing from even a cursory reading of What We Believe and various other documents, including the Deed of Adherence and Partnership Agreement".
"That is because the documentation makes it very clear where the power lies; that the leadership group holds absolute power and control, including in relation to work, and that members of the Community submit to the leaders; and that members were not to report concerns to external agencies."
Lawyer Brian Henry says this is the first time a proper look has been given to the conditions in Gloriavale by someone in authority.
He says "this case is about working conditions, safety, humane working hours, human rights and remuneration".
He says this judgement means his clients are "entitled to have compensation and be remunerated for work they did". It also "sets a precedent for future litigation."
In a statement issued on behalf of Gloriavale's leaders, they said they were looking over the decision.
"The Leaders are committed to bringing positive change to the Community for the benefit of those that live there. They will carefully review the findings of the Employment Court and consider what steps they will take in response to it."