Thoughts on new Modern Day Slavery Legislation

Did you know that the consultation for new Modern Day Slavery Laws is in progress? You can have your say here.

I have been thinking through some of the issues that I would like to include in my submission, relating to worker exploitation and forced labour in the context of the Gloriavale Community. I want to ask MBIE to consider the role of employment exploitation in high-control groups as they look at this issue.

Modern slavery is severe exploitation that a person cannot leave due to threats, violence or deception. It includes forced labour, debt bondage, forced marriage, slavery, and human trafficking.

In my role as Manager of the Gloriavale Leavers Trust I am in contact with a significant number of people who have left the community, across a long time-period. Most of the people who have left in the past 10 years believe that they have been exploited as workers They were kept in this religious group under threats, manipulation and coercion for many years (most since they were born) and did not know anything different.

Their free labour was used to build a conglomerate of businesses (leavers often refer to it as the Gloriavale Empire). Most of the assets were put into a Charitable Trust, but there have been attempts to move them back out into Partnerships. When people are excommunicated, or leave, they leave behind their life’s efforts to build the kingdom. They were led to believe it was God’s Church and that they were volunteer workers. Those who remained committed and loyal would be rewarded with a ticket to heaven. Those who dared to express other thoughts and opinions would be cast aside, and lose their salvation, along with everything else.

Our many attempts to shine the light on worker exploitation in Gloriavale and the role of coercion was not adequately understood or investigated by MBIE. In the years that we have been activating to have the leavers’ voices heard, more and more harm was being done to those living inside – including excessive and punishing working hours, unsafe working conditions, no remuneration, plus more.

In my opinion the Government response has been poor and inadequate. In the end the ex-members had to seek a legal solution through the Employment Court, requesting a determination of employment status (still awaiting judge’s ruling). I believe this is completely unacceptable.  People in NZ need a system that will actually work without the need for expensive legal action. Justice needs to be achievable for the little person.

Someone who is being exploited is someone who has likely been targeted or was vulnerable in the first place. It’s because of their vulnerability and the power imbalance that the exploitation continues.  This is what enables exploiters to get away with their activities.

Power imbalance is a feature of exploitation and is also a feature of high-control cult groups. However, little is known in NZ about cults and how they operate. It has taken significant effort on our part to help Government agencies understand the mechanisms at play. Exploitation can take place in cultural context, or an immigration concept, or in the case of Gloriavale in a religious cult. Please ensure your new laws are focused on all kinds of exploitation and please consider the role that cult groups like Gloriavale play in exploitation.

Gloriavale is not the only religious cult organisation in New Zealand who has extensive business links and makes use of the “church” workforce. In these groups, people who disagree with the leadership (over all sorts of practical or religious issues), are at risk of losing their jobs, security and family, and many are often left destitute. In addition, the small people are left to fight against powerful organisations who have their fingers in political and business pies. This only adds to the power imbalance.

Documents show that Government agencies, including MBIE, could tell things weren’t quite right with Gloriavale and the employment situation, but they always seemed happy to pass the issues off into someone else’s jurisdiction. This is why I believe this new law should have some other non-Government oversight.

Businesses, like Gloriavale, have demonstrated they can sign up to policies and tick boxes very easily, but their practices can be totally different. We are not interested in more legislation that just ticks boxes and gives an outward show of compliance.

The people writing this legislation need to realise that people who exploit others through threats and violence and coercion, are deliberate deceivers. They will tell lies and cover their tracks with legitimate looking contacts and paperwork. They will willingly want to show you their practices are clean. You need to instead listen to the voices of people who have experienced the harm and who are willing to speak up about it, and not just believe the paperwork given from organisations.

I don’t believe the answer is always just making more law and compliance. Arduous compliance and regulations just bog down NZ’s businesses in paperwork – of which surely the majority are acting fairly. But there does need to be a robust system of investigating complaints and acting when something doesn’t seem right. With all the media attention on Gloriavale in the past few years, can it seem right that there has been NO official investigation into worker exploitation, even though there have been calls for it?

NZ needs to be faster and have a more efficient way of reporting exploitation concerns, having them investigated and dealt with. It shouldn’t take months and years to seek a resolution on labour issues. It certainly shouldn’t need a group of private citizens to mount a legal case because the Government failed to act appropriately when there was a lot of evidence of harm being done.

We are looking forward to the outcome of the recent Employment hearing. We believe it will have international ramifications for modern-day slavery laws. We hope it puts other high-control and cult groups on notice. Religious freedom is a good thing that we must all fight to protect. But that doesn’t mean religious cults can behave as they like and exploit workers and think there won’t be repercussions from it. Violence, threats and coercion have no place in a Christian Community.

(The personal thoughts expressed in this blog post belong to Liz Gregory, Manager of the Gloriavale Leavers’ Support Trust. Not all thoughts and ideas will be representative of all members of the Trust, staff or all ex-Gloriavale members.)