21/07/2023·2 mins to read

Gloriavale leavers declared employees

Last week, the Employment Court issued its latest decision in relation to the Gloriavale Christian Community. In Pilgrim & Ors v Attorney-General & Ors, the Court confirmed that six women who were former Gloriavale members were employees and not volunteers during their time at Gloriavale.

This decision has implications beyond just Gloriavale, as it highlights how easy it is for a ‘volunteer’ to become an ‘employee’ (and entitled to all associated rights) if they are performing work and receive a ‘reward’ for that work (which does not need to be monetary in nature).


The six female plaintiffs were born and raised in the Gloriavale Christian Community, located in a remote area on the West Coast. During their time at Gloriavale, the women carried out work within the community from a young age (around six). Their involvement in work progressed to full time on what was known as the ‘Teams’ as soon as they left school at around 15 years of age. The Teams were tasked with cooking, cleaning, washing and food preparation, collectively producing more than 11,000 meals and washing more than 17,000 items per week.  

Each of the six plaintiffs left the community between 2017 and 2021. They raised concerns with an MBIE Labour Inspector about the working conditions at Gloriavale. The Labour Inspectorate concluded that people who worked in Gloriavale Teams were not employees. However, the plaintiffs sought a declaration from the Court that they were employees while working on the Teams.

Employment Court decision

The Employment Relations Act 2000 excludes ‘volunteers’ from the definition of an employee, but only where the worker has no expectation of reward for their work and receives no reward. The Court found that the plaintiffs did expect to be rewarded for their work on the Teams. Their reward was being permitted to remain in the community with their family and friends; receiving food, shelter, clothing, religious support and guidance and the promise of spiritual redemption. They were rewarded and, therefore, they were not volunteers.

The fact the work was ‘domestic’ in nature was not material in determining if the plaintiffs were employees or not. The Court considered, objectively, the nature of the work undertaken by the plaintiffs, including how it was structured and managed; whether it was work which generally would be paid for; the nature of the facilities; and the significant direction and control exerted on the plaintiffs in their work. All these factors pointed to the real nature of the relationship as being one of employment. The Court has not yet determined remedies.

Impact of the decision 

The decision has significant implications beyond the Gloriavale Christian Community and potentially wider. Organisations (including, for example, faith-based communities or sporting entities) need to carefully consider whether to engage volunteers and the terms of such engagement. As this case highlights, there can be no expectation of reward, but reward need not be only monetary. Therefore, if a volunteer is receiving some form of benefit in exchange for their volunteer work, there is a risk that they could be found to be an employee. Although it is natural for organisations to wish to show their gratitude to volunteer workers in some way, any gifts or benefits granted to that volunteer could place the organisation in risky territory. 

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If you would like to chat to our experts about any aspect of this decision or what impact it may have, please get in touch.

Special thanks to Pema Gyeltshen for her assistance in writing this article.


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