New Zealand’s infamous religious community Gloriavale is once again under fire.

A recent report by Worksafe has alleged that Gloriavale residents were forced to work up to 20 hours a day, with serious injuries being sustained by workers. As a result, the community was flagged for investigation in September. Despite this, the Labour Inspectorate has determined that no action will be taken against Gloriavale. It was determined that these workers were volunteers or partners rather than employees, meaning they are not afforded the same protections under New Zealand law.

This finding is extremely questionable. Did Worksafe robustly investigate this operation?

The Labour Inspectorate has made this decision based on Gloriavale’s Christian values and commitment to communal living. Regardless of whether people understand any agreements they sign or their rights as workers, the residents are choosing to work in these conditions.

The Inspectorate also appears to be justifying their decision based on an exception in current employment law. According to the Employment Relations Act, the term employee excludes a volunteer who (a), does not expect to be rewarded for their work as a volunteer, and (b), does not receive reward for their work.

In reality, it is hard to see how Gloriavale workers could be considered volunteers. Do Gloriavale workers feel compelled to carry out the work through social and religious pressure? The Labour Inspectorate has admitted that isolation and indoctrination are serious threats to any freedom of choice the residents may have. Did these individuals have access to legal advice about the agreements before entering them? It is doubtful any of these questions come with a satisfactory answer.

Even if we ignore these red flags, how can these people be volunteers under the exception if they are given food and accommodation in return for their participation in the community? According to the Work Inspector, residents of Gloriavale are given free food and accommodation “simply by virtue of being a resident. The fact that residence comes with certain expectations is no different from most domestic situations, albeit on a much larger scale.” However, these expectations include far more than just basic domestic work like cooking and cleaning. Gloriavale has incorporated several companies dedicated to farming and manufacturing, earning their charitable trust approximately $3 million per year. When examining the situation broadly, it is obvious that Gloriavale workers are being given food and accommodation in exchange for their Labour in commercial operations. Worksafe is reluctant to call the situation out for what it is, a money-making machine built on underpaid labourers rather than volunteers.

It is even harder to fathom how this operation could be considered a partnership. The relationship at Gloriavale is one where workers are controlled by overbearing elders who hold all the power. This control is exercised regularly and ruthlessly, with reports that elders constantly supervise and monitor their workers over the course of long, inhumane working hours. It is hard to see how there is any sense of equality in this relationship.

This failure to recognise Gloriavale workers as employees denies them the rights they so desperately need to be treated fairly in their places of work. Whether living in religious communities or otherwise, New Zealanders have good reason to be concerned by this development in workplace safety. Worksafe should not allow Gloriavale to hide behind its religious status and continue to mistreat its people.

The question now, is what action needs to be taken to rectify this.