The Press – Editorial – 25/05/2022 – Commercial Ties Should Be Cut

The Press – Editorial – 25/05/2022 – Commercial Ties Should Be Cut

The Press – Editorial – Commercial Ties Should be Cut – 25 May 2022

Gloriavale has had a bad few weeks. Things started to go wrong on May 10, when the Employment Court ruled the secretive West Coast Christian community’s residents were not volunteers while working up to 70-hour weeks at its commercial businesses.

Three former workers brought the case against the group’s leaders, several of its businesses and the Labour Inspectorate, which had twice investigated and found residents could not be classed as employees. They described children as young as 6 being hit, publicly shamed and starved if they did not work hard enough.

That was followed by Westland Dairy Company’s move to consider suspending its milk collection from the community’s dairy farms on the grounds that the company’s suppliers were “contractually obliged to comply with New Zealand employment law and standards and to keep up-to-date employment records”.

At the same time the UMF Honey Association, which certifies manuka honey in New Zealand, announced it was also looking at cancelling licences for Gloriavale’s honey brands. Two of its other products – Moo Chews milk treats for children and Pure Vitality deer velvet supplements – risk losing their government-approved FernMark licence for exporters.

This week came the first confirmed casualty. Silver Fern Farms will no longer provide offal to Gloriavale’s meat plant. Two other meat companies, Alliance Group and ANZCO Foods, are reviewing their position as suppliers in light of the court ruling.

Silver Fern Farms’ decision was a welcome one. All the other companies with commercial ties to Gloriavale should follow suit. Their position is untenable. No New Zealand company should do business with an organisation that coerces children into unpaid work.

Looking back, it seems astonishing that they ever did. Employment Court Chief Judge Christina Inglis was withering in her judgment: “It is plain the ready access to child labour constitutes a significant factor in the success of the Gloriavale business model … Parents had little influence, and no final say, over where, when, and for how long their children worked.”

Why even start doing business with such an outfit? Gloriavale’s dubious employment practices were not a secret. Numerous first-hand accounts from former members described slave-like working conditions at the community. That two investigations by the Labour Inspectorate and one from Charities Services somehow managed not to find the fire that produced the smoke is not a mitigating factor. The potential for exploitation was plain. It is not the job of the courts to make companies’ ethical decisions for them.

The Government is now planning new legislation to combat modern slavery. Consultation on a working paper runs until June 7. New Zealand has a poor record on such matters. Rob Fyfe, chair of the advisory group on the issue, said last month we were hopelessly behind other countries: “I once met with representatives from Afghanistan and Pakistan. I felt embarrassed there was more happening in these countries in regards to modern slavery than here in New Zealand.”

Placing more onus on companies to ensure their supply chains are free of worker exploitation will be a good start. Complaints that Gloriavale was allowed to do business the way it did for as long as it did are valid but don’t detract from the fact that, on the matter of such basic human rights, it is never too late to change.