Compilation – The realities of the Moss Business

Compilation – The realities of the Moss Business

 The Moss Business – collection of recollections from ex-Moss workers. Collated by Liz Gregory.

Gloriavale was always looking for economic opportunities to support their self-sustaining community. A feature of the newly purchased West Coast property in the early 1990’s was the swamp where hoards of moss grew. From then until around 2011 they worked the moss in the region from a mixture of DOC land and private property. They eventually purchased a swamp in Moana which grew the highly sought-after sphagnum moss. This moss grew well in the wet West Coast conditions. Japan was a key export market for the product, which was in later years turned into hanging basket liners.

All that was needed were gumboots, a pitchfork, a bag, and a ready workforce.

The gumboots were easy to come by, but keeping their feet dry in this environment was impossible. The gumboots had holes in them, and there wasn’t a suitable replacement policy. There were times when the moss was 1 – 3 foot deep in the swamp.

Pitchforks were used to pull the moss out from the rushes, before forking it into a wool bale. The job was to clear the region around the bag. If the workers were too young for pitchfork, they’d use their hands to collect up the moss. They would pull the rushes aside, pull out the sticks, fluff out the moss and shake it into the bag.

The bags were spread across the Moana site, and when there were a large number were completed, a helicopter was commissioned to collect the bags and drop them onto trucks. From there they would be transported to the Moss Shed at Gloriavale to be packed into blocks, then into boxes and into shipping containers and sold to willing markets.

The cold, hard reality, is that it was extremely difficult working conditions for many of the young men. One fellow described being a 14 – 16 year old working in grueling and in punishing conditions. At the end of a day of work everyone would be soaked. There was no escaping the physically demanding work and the relentless working conditions. Workers would pick moss all day long from morning until dusk.

The weather up near the Haupiri Valley could fluctuate across the season from long, hot summers to freezing cold winters. During winter it was cold and wet with no gloves, holding a freezing pitchfork. Their bare hands were chilled to the bone for hours on end.

Growing young men recall not being fed properly having been given only 3 sandwiches with light-weight fillings – mayo, vegemite and jam, plus an apple for a 14-hour day. There were times the fellows took off to find a blackberry bush to supplement their lunch. They even resorted to eating bull-rush shoots, wild apples, and wild plums. Such was their hunger. Breakfast was at 6am and they’d be working right through until the lunch break. Work usually knocked off at 4:30pm, but during busy seasons they’d be there until 7 or 8pm.

There were periods of time when they started at 5am and worked until dark Monday to Saturday. Working in the Moss business was the hardest job in the community.

Moss workers have said it’s hard to paint the picture properly, but the trip into the moss swamps involved travelling on the back of a work vehicle inside a cabin with very few seats. They would be covered in dust before they even arrived to start their day of work, taking off their singlets and covering their faces to protect themselves. There were people throwing up with travel sickness before they even got there. Some would sleep in the back of the truck, stretched out if there was room. There were a team of 12 – 14 people in the vehicle, jostling around.

On the way back after a hard day at work, there would be more people throwing up. They were dehydrated and cramped. Jammed in 4-to-a-seat, if you could get one, your legs were bent and cramping so badly. It was just life. These workers never really thought about another life. There were no options when it came to where and how you worked at Gloriavale. You just had to tough it out.

But it wasn’t only full-time workers who were heading out to Moana. Some days Hopeful Christian would cancel school for the day and the young kids would head out to help in the swamps. Working on Saturdays were also a common feature of life for the young school children. Every weekend they would head out after a 6am breakfast and during the summer months the older young people might not return until darkness started to settle around 9pm. They recall being so tired that they would fall asleep during school time.

Collecting the moss was just one step the whole production. In the early years the bags were choppered to the Moss Shed to be laid on drying racks, but over time this changed.

The market started to cool and there was competition from Chile. Gloriavale stopped using the swamps further out and refocused its operation on moss growing on the edge of Lake Haupiri.

It was here that the younger primary school boys entered the moss scene more regularly during the week days.

Young kids would assemble together after school finished around 1:30pm to be taken to the Gloriavale swamps. This was compulsory worktime. Everyone in the community was allocated an afterschool job. Sometimes they would travel in vehicles and other times they would all cycle the few kilometres downhill. One young man recollects it being so cold one day he couldn’t cycle home, and just had to push his bike uphill.

Specially made drying racks were brought down to the swamp, where the moss might remain for a day or two to dry out. Around 50 – 60 racks were built by the young men and were around 3m long, 1.5m deep and well above adult head height – perhaps 2.5m high. The racks were stacked on top of the other on a slight angle, allowing the sun to dry out the moss. To young kids these racks towered above them.

The racks would need to be moved around to the various locations, and the easiest way for two young kids to do this was to lie them flat and roll them over and over into their new positions. A story is recalled about a 9 year old child whose hand was spliced during this activity. The racks were rusty and as it was rolling over it caught his arm, lifted him up off the ground and tore his hand. It was a long cut, from 2 inches below his wrist, all the way through to the split in two of his fingers. The supervisors handed him a hanky and he carried on working.

When he headed back into Gloriavale he spent an hour looking for someone to help him. It was dark and he’d not eaten dinner. He was given some butterfly stitches, a bandage and was back at work pretty soon after.

Leavers say that’s all they knew. You got hurt and you kept working. They hadn’t been taught any differently. That’s what was done. There weren’t other options. That was what was done and so they did it.

This generation of young men also recall the freezing condition, the inability to move your hands, They were barely holding onto the pitchfork with bitterly cold winds blowing their way. The pitchforks were no small implements. They had a wooden handle which towered over a young person, and they had 4-5 prongs with sharp ends and edges. The moss was wet and heavy and must have had 5-6 kg of weight on the end of it. These small children, between 6 and 12 years old, learned to flick the moss high up onto the drying rack, where other children would be standing to collect it and straighten it out on the rack.

After drying for a couple of days, the moss was bagged back up and carried out in the wool sacks.  Dried moss was much lighter, probably around 10kg, but the bags were awkward to handle due to their size and a couple of young ones would be needed to haul the bags out of the wet swamp. A successful technique was to carry them on your head to the waiting truck.

One young man reflected that’s where these boys learnt to work. They just kept going and going. A constant cycle all year round. They just kept going until the racks were empty. You’d empty a moss rack, then you’d refill it.

One young fellow said he didn’t care working too much, but it bothered him when he didn’t get looked after properly. They were the times he’d be freezing on the trip home, or working when not feeling well, or not getting medical treatment he required.

But being in the swamp was the fun part. The Moss Shed was hell.

It was a metal zipperlock building which was cold in winter and stifling hot in summer. They installed a sprinkler system on the roof to cool it down in the heat of summer.

After the moss’ delivery back to Gloriavale, the moss shed would be humming with workers. The work was fast and furious. It was a dusty and noisy environment with little or no safety equipment available. Most workers had no earmuffs, eye protection or gloves. The dust was thick in the air, causing black snot and wheezing lungs.

It hosted a shaker table, (which replaced the old conveyor belt system they used in the early years). The bales were placed at one end and the moss was put onto the shaker table to be broken up with bare hands. It was filled with prickles and gorse, which stabbed your hands endlessly. Many leavers bear the scars of nicks and scrapes from the moss shed.

Often one adult and a number of young ones would work alongside each other on the 3m long table.   Anyone whose head couldn’t reach above the shaker table was given a stool to stand on. If your arms could work, you’d be given a job. The workers would turn the moss over, allowing the sticks to drop to the floor below, burying workers knee-deep. One fella spoke about passing a 16 hour shift and only moving his feet twice in that period.

At the end of the table, someone would feed the moss into the bags, where it would head through to be processed into 500g – 1kgm blocks, and packaged into boxes and a shipping container for export.

The Moss Shed did night shift as well, with some starting at 9pm and finishing up at lunchtime. It was often freezing cold and they’d wrap blankets around themselves to keep warm. The younger boys didn’t do the nightshift, but they finished school just after lunch and would head down until dinnertime.

In the early years for every container that was sold, one cake of chocolate was shared out to everyone over 12 years old.  The younger fellows don’t recall this pleasure.

The moss business wasn’t just men’s work though. The young girls were also called down to work on the moss. There were days when school closed up and they headed down, or for the older girls on their “cleaning day” they would also head down to the shed to clean the moss.

A couple of years before the business closed down in 2011, they finally invested in an automated cleaning system which only required 3-4 guys to clean the moss. But by then the toll of the 20 years of the moss industry had taken its toll on the Gloriavale residents.

Thomas – (Name changed)

Thomas recalls working in the moss shed near the basket press in the afternoons as a young primary-aged boy. It was standard to knock off school around 1:30pm and then be sent down with a team of boys to do 3-4 hours of work afterschool. He also recalls working early morning shifts and also the full days on Saturdays. He was liked by the supervisors as he was a good worker. He recalls knowing that they’d get in trouble if they didn’t go to work. It was commonly known that if you didn’t go to work you’d be publically shamed at the dinner table, and even in your class at school.  It didn’t need to happen all that often because not many people buck the system at Gloriavale.

In the moss shed there would be 2-4 adults supervising and a team of up to 15 several young primary-aged fellas.  Around 2010, when Thomas was 10 years old he suffered an injury at the moss shed when his arm got trapped in machinery during the afternoon shift.

There was a shaker table that lead to a conveyor belt. The shaker got blocked sometimes and so boys might jump on the platform to unblock it, while others went up to straighten out the moss. Supervisors and adults working in the shed saw boys doing this and no one was discouraged from doing it. On this day, things went bad when Thomas’ hand got pulled into the conveyor belt right up to his elbow.

There was no safety guard to protect this from happening. One of the boys started yelling out to turn off the machine, but the supervisor was more than 8m away, and he was deaf and there was noisy machinery operating. Another severely visually impaired man was one of the supervisors that day, and he wouldn’t have seen what occurred. It took more than 30 seconds to eventually turn the machine off. Some got a wrench and wound back the machine by hand. It was another 20 mins before Thomas’s arm was freed.

The photo shows the damage done to his arm as it got pulled into the machine.

Thomas went home and was taken to the person in the community who dealt with “first aid” incidents.  There is no nurse or doctor at Gloriavale, but they have someone trained in pre-hospital emergency care. She took a look and gave him some painkillers and told him to put some ice on it, and put it in a sling.

Thomas wasn’t allowed to go to the doctor. His mum recalls a more senior person saying that because of OSH they wouldn’t want to mention it as a workplace accident.  It was common practice at Gloriavale not to seek medical attention if there were workplace accidents, especially involving younger children working in dangerous places.

His mum was upset, but inside Gloriavale the parents don’t get to make decisions for their children. There was the spoken and unspoken pressure of the leaders always hanging over the place.

The usual process for seeking medical attention was to ask your husband, then you may go and ask the Shepherd who is in charge of your floor. Only then can you escalate issues. Most mums didn’t have a license, access to a vehicle, or any money to pay for the doctors’ visits. There was also an unorthodox “donation” arrangement between Gloriavale and the Greymouth hospital. Gloriavale liked to say they didn’t rely on the Government for handouts, and so they were reluctant to use ACC. In the case of an accident, they wouldn’t fill out the forms and so they told their community members they had to pay to go to the hospital. This kind of conditioning just put a lot of barriers in the way of seeking healthcare.

The upshot is that Gloriavale didn’t want a workplace investigation. In this case it would be too hard to explain what had happened, and there was no blood or broken bones.

The next day at dinnertime Hopeful Christian (the leader) ripped into the men at the moss shed saying it shouldn’t have happened. But the men responded by saying that Thomas was being stupid. Hopeful then publicly berated Thomas, saying that he was an uncontrollable boy. That upset his mum. A few days later they came and asked again if Thomas would go and work for them and his mum refused, saying that, “No, he can’t. You said he was uncontrollable, but I’ve never had that problem with him.”

Thomas couldn’t use his hand properly for the next 6 months, and to this day his writing is reasonably illegible.


Another young man

In 2007, another young boy was part of a team which was overseen by a particularly harsh supervisor who rcan a tough working regime. He had his favourites and if you didn’t match up, there wasn’t much you could do about it. The sticks they used to pull out from the moss weren’t the only sticks being used in the place. It was commonly known this man had a temper, and if you were one of the boys he didn’t like, life could be difficult.  Many boys suffered bruises from their time under this supervisor. He has since been convicted and charged through the courts for a few cases of more recent assaults on minors, but the stories that didn’t get told just keep piling up. The Moss business was not a safe or a happy place for kids.

As a seven-year old this young boy nearly lost his eye working in the moss business. He was finishing up on one of the moss racks, and jumped to the ground below. Unfortunately just at the moment another young lad with a pitchfork draped over his shoulder turned around. The pitchfork went straight above the eye, chipping the eyebrow. It was just an accident. With blood dripping down his face, the angry supervisor came over and grabbed him by the scruff of the neck, and beat him with the pitchfork and verbally abused him for being a stupid boy. This was his punishment for jumping off the rack.

The supervisor dragged the bleeding young fella out to the vehicle and drove him up to the main office area and ordered him inside to find a first-aid responder. This seven-year old boy was slightly confused and half-unconscious. He was blacking out and his vision was totally impaired. He didn’t go to hospital or the doctors. They simply stitched him up and covered the eye with a bandage.

A couple of weeks later a series of 13 steri-strips were added to keep the wound together, and before long he was working back down with the moss.

In true Gloriavale fashion, they made a new rule after that. “Don’t jump off the racks because someone got hurt”. But they never gave another alternative.


Child Labour?

It was pretty typical for many fellows at Gloriavale, to start full-time work in the moss from 15 years old. But during the early 2000’s boys as young as 6 were rostered on to help at the moss. Peter Righteous, a Servant at Gloriavale was in charge of the boys’ rosters and he recently denied that children as young as 6 and 7 were working with the moss. When questioned in the Employment Court he stated that any children who went down there were simply going with parents because they wanted to. His evidence was rigorously disputed.

The recollection of many boys who have since left Gloriavale and the images above confirm that young children were working in jobs that out here would be performed by adults, in an “employment type” relationship.

Dozens of leavers and parents insist they had no right to complain about where their sons were being sent. They too were trapped in a regime of working, working, working. They had little autonomy over their own lives, let along their children’s.

During the Employment Court Hearing Peter Righteous seems to be amused at the allegations that young boys worked all afternoons without a break. He said the supervisors used to take the boys outside and play games with them for half-an-hour. But none of the men who have recounted their experiences have many memories of that. Some young men recalled playing at the Moss Shed before the supervisors came along, or if they knocked off 15 mins earlier because they had met the quota for the day. The supervisors would go home and the boys would remain to play hide-and-seek in the Moss shed. They’d hide in the moss kilns, around the shaker tables, squeeze in between the gaps in the bags in the shipping container, on the conveyor belt. There were many a good hiding spot in amongst the presses.

A link that needs further exploring is also the link between the employment of the young boys and sexual offending. Young boys were working in largely unsuitable places with unsatisfactory supervision. Parents had little control over who their boys were allocated with, and the harm that has been perpetrated over decades is disturbing. Working away from adequate supervision and with an elaborate hierarchy structure and a pecking order, there were kids who were more easily targeted by older boys and supervisors in the “after school work programme”. Other areas that boys would be allocated to would be the gardens, dairy farms, rock picking, weed pulling etc.

Peter Righteous argued in court that the boys were often with family members, perhaps even a father. But leavers say that’s a stretch of the truth. Admittedly in a community like Gloriavale where there are extensive familial relationships, there were times when they ended up working with brothers or an uncle, or perhaps even a father, but anyone who has lived at Gloriavale will tell you that Hopeful Christian discouraged fathers from spending too much time with their sons.

One father was hauled into a Servants and Shepherds meeting after requesting his sons remained working with him at a dairy farm. The outcome of any “conversations” and “discussions” parents may have had with leaders, ultimately came down to needing the leaders’ approval. If you didn’t accept their decision, there was no recourse for you. You submitted and obeyed, and showed your loyalty to the community and your commitment to being in “unity” or you faced the stark choice – leave with nothing.

There have clearly been workplace and safety concerns around Gloriavale for many years, but Government Departments have been appearing to pass this hot potato from one to the other. It’s also difficult to get the whole story out of groups like Gloriavale, where it’s more important to protect their reputation in the eye of the public, and no one inside wants to be seen as a nark. They made promises they would never tell authorities or outsiders about things that went on inside the community. They aren’t unlike a typical gang in this manner.

A self-sustaining community might sound like a dream that sells, but one needs to ponder how much of the over $60 million asset rich empire is built on child labour? And does that sit right with us as a nation?