• Insights

Children working in a religious community were employees

Written by
Kiely Thompson Caisley, New Zealand’s leading boutique employment law firm.
The New Zealand Employment Court has found that three former residents of a Christian community were employees while they worked in the community as children.


Gloriavale Christian Community (Gloriavale) is a self-sustaining religious community with all the members living in a communal lifestyle. All members of the community are expected to contribute to the Community as far as they are able.


This case arose from the claims of three former members who were born into the Community and carried out work from the age of six. They sought a declaration that they were employees at Gloriavale.


Whether an individual is an employee depends on assessing the real nature of the relationship with the principal and requires case-by-case analysis on the facts. Much focus will be on how the relationship operated in practice, rather than relying on the label given to the relationship in the written terms of any agreement or what the parties believed the relationship to be.


Gloriavale claimed that the work undertaken by the applicants between the ages of six and 14 was ‘chores’. The Employment Court disagreed and found that Gloriavale management had strict control and direction over the jobs performed, by deciding who did the work, when and where that work was conducted, as well as the hours of work.


The Court also held there is a spectrum with employee-conducted work on one end and family/community/chores/activities at the other end. In these circumstances, what pushed the nature of the relationship towards the employee-conducted work was a range of non-exhaustive factors such as:


  • the commercial nature of the activities performed;
  • the fact that the activities were undertaken to support a commercial purpose;
  • Gloriavale’s commercial business accrued the benefits of the members’ efforts;
  • the activities were consistently performed over an extended period of time; and
  • the fact that the activities were strenuous, difficult and sometimes dangerous.


The Court also held that the former members were employees after they turned 15. While the labels for their work may have changed from chores to ‘transitional work experience’, then to ‘Associate Partnership’, nothing substantively had changed and they remained employees.


Gloriavale also claimed that the workers were volunteers. As defined by the New Zealand Employment Relations Act, a volunteer is someone who works but does not expect to be rewarded for doing so and receives no reward for the work done. However, the Court accepted the plaintiffs were rewarded for their work through food, accommodation, and security within the Community.


This judgment raised the question of whether the working conditions (if accepted) amounted to slavery or forced labour. This question was not directly answered but the Court held that a person working in forced labour conditions may still fall within the definition of employee and within the jurisdiction of the Employment Court.


To read the Employment Court’s judgment, click here.


For more information about employment rights

Peter Kiely
Peter Kiely
Partner - New Zealand
Kiely Thompson Caisley
Scott Worthy
Scott Worthy
Partner - New Zealand
Kiely Thompson Caisley