Gloriavale - a community of devoted volunteers or a colony of slaves?
Have New Zealand authorities been turning a blind eye to generations of slavery at Gloriavale or are its members willing volunteers? And why is the government pouring millions of dollars into this remote community? Joanne Naish and Amber Allott report.
Zion Pilgrim says he spent the last two years of his time at Gloriavale trying to bring about change. Change for the young people who begin work aged six and who can go on to work up to 90 hours a week without pay or employment rights. But mostly he wanted change for the young victims of sexual predators in the community.
In the end, the 43-year-old hunting guide says he had no choice but to flee the community with his family to protect his pregnant wife and 12 children.
However, the leaders at the remote West Coast community say the claims are absurd. Able-bodied adults “lovingly work” to provide for the community and the chores done by their children are no different to those worked by “any boy growing up on a farm in New Zealand”.
So where does the truth lie?
This will be decided by the Employment Court in Wellington where three former members of Gloriavale have taken their claims, not only against the leaders of the community, but the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment after its Labour Inspectorate investigations in 2020 and 2021 found Gloriavale workers were volunteers and therefore employment laws did not apply.
The court’s decision will have far-reaching implications.
* Gloriavale leaders reject slavery claims, say members work 'willingly' and 'lovingly'
* Gloriavale kids made to work days without sleep, one chained to steel post, court told
* Sent to work at age 6, beaten and starved: One boy's experience of 'volunteering' at Gloriavale
Religious community’s multi-million dollar operation
Former members claim Gloriavale residents are forced to work in dangerous jobs for long hours with no pay, at times denied sleep and food in fear of beatings and public humiliation, the Employment Court was told this week.
Gloriavale is a community of about 500 people in Haupiri, some 60km from Greymouth.
Perhaps the most powerful insight into community life came from Zion Pilgrim, a former leader at Gloriavale. His seniority gave him in-depth knowledge of the community’s inner workings and finances..
Pilgrim was a trustee of Gloriavale’s Christian Church Community Trust and eight of the community’s commercial enterprises including Air West Coast, its farms, hunting business and pet food business Value Proteins.
He said the community spent up to $100,000 on legal fees every month and in a three-month period spent $400,000 on legal advisors, accountants and tax consultants.
He said the structure was set up to maximise Government grants and minimise taxes.
Members who work for the companies are called Christian Partners and are paid but must also sign a partnership agreement which says they freely donate all their wages back to the trust.
The court heard from one of the three plaintiffs, Levi Courage, that when he finally got access to his bank account after leaving the community he found out he had been paid about $10,500 in 2020 as a Christian Partner.
Pilgrim told the court the partners were paid so the companies could post a lower profit and therefore pay less tax. He understood paying the partners wages was also a way of the community getting access to Working for Families.
He said the total Government subsidies amounted to about $4.5 million a year, including more than $2m in Working for Families tax credits.
The trust’s annual return says it owns the communal living facilities, operates a private school and three early childcare centres, along with 11 companies including Air West Coast Ltd, dairy, deer and sheep farms, midwifery services, a honey company, and an offal plant.
It does not pay its workers as employees and does not pay tax. The return says it has 40 volunteers working 1200 hours a year.
Its annual revenue in 2020 was $18m – down from $20m in 2019. It reported a surplus of $2.78m, up almost $1m from $1.8m in 2019, and its net assets were $41m, up $2.8m from $38.3m in 2019. The financial statement shows it entered into a purchase agreement to buy Brunner Station for $6.7m.
Child exploitation or family chores?
Former members told the court stories of their time working at Gloriavale alleging modern day slavery with boys sent into a swamp to gather moss with forks, while an urgent honey order saw some members work 122 hours with only a four-hour break.
Social psychologist Barri Leslie was gripped by the case which brought back difficult memories.
Leslie had been one of the founding members of the controversial Centrepoint commune, which she now described as a cult, and spent years locked in a legal battle to shut it down.
Calling Gloriavale workers volunteers rather than employees was a classic cult tactic, she said.
“They use labels that suit themselves, but they're slaves. Even slaves historically were housed and fed. It's astonishing [this case] is in court in New Zealand in the 21st century.”
Of particular concern were reports on children working in commercial operations from as young as 6, she said.
“In a normal society, chores for children are making your bed, helping with the dishes. It beggars belief working in a business where you're gathering moss is called chores.”
Leslie said it was common for leaders to call these groups "one big family", which made the leader - usually a man - the father.
“The parents then start to lose their responsibility as parents, it's a pattern well documented in cults.”
The court heard evidence that the family unit was broken down so badly one father chained his son to a steel post because he did not know how to look after him.
Lelsie said she had noticed another alarming pattern, which she called “divide and conquer”.
From what she had heard, in Gloriavale there were men's meetings, where an individual guilty of perceived wrongdoing was brought before the group and admonished.
“In our culture, when we put someone on the stand they have a lawyer, they have a support person. In these meetings they're completely alone.
“It's the same dynamic as an abusive relationship. Right at the point where you'd want to leave, the inner self is so broken, the strength isn't there.”
That was on top of members having no money, often not knowing anyone outside the community, and being geographically isolated.They also feared going to hell.
It was not fair for groups like Gloriavale to benefit from tax exemptions and Government grants, Leslie said.
“There is an automatic assumption religions contribute benefit to society, but there needs to be a human rights standard being met.”
She said victims of such groups could spend years and huge amounts of money fighting them.
“Freedom of religion protects these groups that do harm, and that needs to change.
“It took six years to take Centrepoint down when it was clearly very abusive. It's high time the Government and laws were brought up to date, [so] groups can be held to account.”
Standing up to ‘evil’
The Employment Court heard from a woman who has lived in Gloriavale for more than 50 years.
Sharon Ready, a grandmother of 71, said as a Christian it was her duty to expose “a dark side hidden in this community, which needs to be brought to the light” and to stand up to what had become evil.
She, along with everyone at Gloriavale, lived according to the community's ruling document What We Believe which outlined every detail of their lives from weight to marriage to food and work.
Every community member is expected to sign a declaration of commitment when they reach 18 which allows them to get married and continue living in the community.
Since 2012, the Charities Services, Police, Oranga Tamariki, IRD, Teaching Council and the Labour Inspectorate have all investigated the community.
A police investigation into sexual offending against children has resulted in several people being charged and is ongoing. So far it has identified more than 60 people as having been involved in harmful sexual behaviour as either children, young people, or young adults.
Ready’s daughter Virginia Courage said
the people in Gloriavale lived under extreme duress to sign documents they did not understand and to submit to the leaders in every way.
“I knew no different. I now live outside Gloriavale with my nine children and my husband. My life is so nice now. It’s relaxed. It’s busy but I’m a mum who can organise my life and my time. I can have any interest I like in the outside world because my life is not censored,” she said.
She said Government agencies did not understand the “huge cultural shock” people experienced upon leaving Gloriavale.
She used an example of girls being required to have "long flowing hair". She said Hopeful Christian began asking questions when some of the girls' hair was not long enough. She said her father came home and asked her younger sisters if they were cutting their hair – it was then she began questioning the rules of the congregation and only realises now the sexual connotations at play.
Gloriavale ‘legally compliant’
Gloriavale was represented at the hearing by Peter Righteous, who as a servant is one of the 16 leaders in the community serving under Overseeing Shepard Howard Temple.
He said all members worked for the benefit of the community like a family and children were expected to do chores and farm duties like any other rural New Zealander.
He was responsible for writing rosters for boys aged between six and 12, for jobs like rock picking and gardening. He said it was always done with parental permission – something strongly refuted by former members.
He said the legal entities had evolved over many years and the community had taken advice to ensure it was legally compliant and had also made changes as a result of Government investigations.
“Receiving Working for Families tax credits is not and never has been a consideration in Gloriavale's legal structure,” he said.
He said the community’s legal structure was complex and included the trust, the partnership, nominee company, holding company and limited liability companies.
“It might look dodgy but there's nothing sinister about it. It's fully transparent,” he said.
He said the community also supported communities in India and Kenya.
Gloriavale members ‘self-employed’
Labour inspectorate lawyer Jenny Catran asked Righteous about hiding underage workers and allegations that senior leaders Howard Temple and Fervent Stedfast gave sermons during dinner, coaching members to tell investigators they were volunteers and not employees.
“If Fervent was rushing around saying anything it was just to give a very quick lesson in what not to say because our people would have been ignorant of the implications of saying anything,” he said.
He responded that the community had only recently learned the definition of words like self-employed, volunteer and employee. He classified Christian Partners workers as self-employed, and not volunteers.
“The IRD has a list with a whole bunch of check points on it, the labour department has another definition with a whole lot of little boxes and checklists. We have been through all the boxes that we say make us self-employed,” he said.
Righteous broke down in tears when he told the court Gloriavale had changed its attitudes to sexual offending and now had procedures in place to prevent it. He said the community had co-operated with the investigations and now reported allegations immediately to police.
“Our whole attitude where once upon a time we may have had some concerns for the offender, a lot of those concerns have dried up because we have seen the devastating effect that these men can have on children,” he said.
Speaking outside court, Pilgrim saidthe notion that the workers were self-employed and not volunteers was another level of complexity.
“Gloriavale’s whole legal structure is around an employment contract. You are not paid in wages but you are paid in a life. If you stay here and do what I say and work in this job, even if you hate it, then you can live here and see your friends and family.
“That’s what they can take off you if you disagree,” he said.
Pilgrim said his friends remaining at Gloriavale were “hanging on for change” and needed external help to “come in and make it a safer place”.
He called on Government agencies and police to protect the people of Gloriavale.
“They need protection in work like every other New Zealander .
He said he had not understood how the leaders broke down the family unit by taking away people’s knowledge of right and wrong.
“Unfortunately that is classic cult behaviour and very disempowering.
”There is no conscience. The parents that want to change and feel responsible for their family are powerless to do anything about it. They have no control over anything. It’s just tragic,” he said.
“If all the negative elements of Gloriavale were rectified and made right I don’t think people would have a problem if it continued.
“If people could live there in safety and with individual freedom and rights it would have a very different future.”
However, if it needed to be closed down to save one child from assault, it was worth it, said Pilgrim.
“It will be far worse if they are allowed to continue to harm and abuse those trapped inside.
”The same people and ideology are in control that protected known offenders for years.
“It is a black spot on New Zealand as a free country and people living there are not safe or free.”