29 Aug 2022

'The truth is it is dark' - Gloriavale workers begin Employment Court trial

6:02 pm on 29 August 2022

A former Gloriavale member has told the Employment Court she would work until she fell asleep as a teenager in the closed Christian community.

Gloriavale Christian community. File photo. Photo: Google Maps

Today marked the beginning of a five-week hearing before chief judge Christina Inglis in Christchurch, where 49 witnesses will provide evidence.

Serenity Pilgrim alongside Anna Courage, Rose Standtrue, Crystal Loyal, Pearl Valor and Virginia Courage are arguing their years of domestic work in the sect was as employees, rather than as volunteers.

Gloriavale's leaders deny the claims that the women were employees or were under the absolute control of the Shepherds.

Serenity Pilgrim was the first of the plaintiffs to provide evidence, and said she had no life outside of work as a teenager.

"It was work or get told off," she said.

"Half the time I didn't eat proper meals because I had to work."

Pilgrim said she worked on a four-day rotation of cooking, cleaning, laundry and preparation for the next day.

She said she started working from the age of seven or eight, and was gradually given more work until she finished school, when she began working an average of 90 hours a week.

The hardest work was cooking, where Pilgrim said she sometimes worked from 3am until 9pm without proper breaks and restricted toilet breaks.

"If toilet breaks were more than five minutes, they'd ask what was going on."

"I'd just fall asleep at the table."

In his opening statement, the six women's barrister Brian Henry told the court the nature of the women's working conditions were as employees and were abusive.

"Put simply, they're not voluntary. They are, as women's working conditions in New Zealand in 2022, in our submission, scandalous," he said.

"The truth is it is dark."

The women were essentially living in a working hostel, producing 11,500 meals a week and sleeping in rooms with up to eight people, Henry said.

"This isn't a home, it's a hostel," he said.

Gloriavale operated like a family, barrister says

Gloriavale's barrister Phillip Skelton QC said in his opening statement that the community operated like a family, and everyone was both provided for and expected to contribute.

"They do not work for wages or reward or enter into contracts of employment," he said.

"Most people do unpaid work at home to support their families.

"If the court finds the women of Gloriavale are employees, it will not be recognising the real nature of the relationship actually as it is or was. It will instead be dictating what it considers the nature of the relationship should have been."

Women who are current members of Gloriavale were offended by the plaintiff's claims, and they were happy with their choice to stay and contribute to the community, he said.

Pilgrim left Gloriavale two years ago, and said leaving had helped her think for herself, and truly understand freedom and happiness.

"In Gloriavale you were happy, because you needed to be, and you were told to be," she said.

"It definitely wasn't fun, and it definitely was not freedom."

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