The Employment Court has ruled that a group of ex-Gloriavale members were employees at the secretive Christian community - from when they were just six years old.
Further, the members undertook "strenuous, difficult, and sometimes dangerous" work when they were still legally required to be at school.
The landmark decision now opens the door for the leavers to take further court action against Gloriavale.
Earlier this year the group took the Christian community to court in a bid to determine their employment status while they lived there and ascertain whether they were wrongly exploited as workers.
Leavers Hosea Courage, Daniel Pilgrim and Levi Courage were seeking a declaration from the Employment Court around their status after they left school and worked at the commune and in Gloriavale-owned businesses during their teenage years.
The court action follows multiple inquiries into the employment status of people living and working at Gloriavale.
The Labour Inspectorate investigated in 2017 after concerns raised by Charities Services, and again in 2020, after allegations of long working hours were made by two community members.
The results of both inquiries showed that no employment relationships existed within Gloriavale as defined by New Zealand employment law - that members of Gloriavale cannot currently be considered employees.
As such, the matter falls outside of the Inspectorate's jurisdiction.
So, the leavers took the matter to the Employment Court.
Today Chief Employment Court Judge Christina Inglis made declarations that Courage, Pilgrim and Courage "were employees from the age of six through to when they left the Gloriavale Community."
"The fact that the work was undertaken within a religious community, and according to a particular set of beliefs and values, did not mean that it could escape close scrutiny by external agencies or avoid minimum employment standards if they applied," she said.
"The plaintiffs worked regularly and for long hours, primarily for the benefit of Gloriavale's commercial operations.
"The work was done for the reward of the necessities of life and the ability to remain in the community. It was subject to strict control.
"The work undertaken by the plaintiffs as children between the ages of six and 14 could not be described as "chores", including because of the commercial nature of the activities, because they were performed over an extended period of time and because they were strenuous, difficult, and sometimes dangerous."
Judge Inglis said it was the Gloriavale leadership group which decided what child labour resources were required and where they were to be applied.
"Parents had little influence, and no final say, over where, when, and for how long their children worked," she ruled
"The work is undertaken when the plaintiffs were 15 - and still legally obliged to be at school - could not be described as an educational work experience or as volunteering.
"The label applied to this work was misleading and did not reflect the real nature of the work and the basis on which it was being done."
Judge Inglis said at the age of 16 the plaintiffs signed agreements labelling them as "Associate Partners".
This label "did not change the substance of the relationship" and she said it was "viewed with scepticism".
"The plaintiffs did not understand what they were signing and nor did they have capacity, because of their age, to be part of a partnership," she said.
"Further, the recording of time worked and the rate of m employment entitlements."
Judge Inglis said today's decision does not resolve all issues between the parties.
"Future judgments will focus on the issues of identifying which person or entity in
Gloriavale's commercial structure is the employer/s and whether the Labour Inspector breached any statutory duty to the plaintiffs by the way it concluded its investigation," she said.
At a hearing in May the leavers' lawyer Brian Henry said Gloriavale leaders"control every aspect" of life in the community including what work is done, by who and what they get in return.
He said the leaders had total "power and control" to "an extreme extent" and members were "kept totally unworldly, and ignorant" so they did not challenge or ask questions.
"(Members) live a life of blind obedience, a life without basic human rights ... that's the degree of power and control the Shepherds have over this community," said Henry.
The court heard that those who did not work hard were heavily punished.
Hosea Courage said he started working when he was just six.
He told the court he started working when he was just six and recalled being punished for working too slowly - once he was hit and another time he was not allowed dinner.
Courage left school at 15 and worked in the piggery.
He said he signed a document stating he would "get money" for working.
That money would go directly into a bank account for Gloriavale.
He signed a tax form declaring Gloriavale as his agent - but saw no money and had no personal bank account.
Courage said he was given six days of holiday a year - which he slept through due to sheer exhaustion - and had no sick leave.
He said leaders told members that if asked by anyone they were to say they were "volunteers".
"Each day I was exhausted from the long hours," he said.
"We did not have a choice ... I was smacked with a shovel handle, denied food."
Another leaver Daniel Pilgrim explained that all children were expected to work at "a very young age".
"If you were talking and you were told not to, I remember getting hit with a broom handle… sometimes denial of food was used," he said.
"I didn't have any choice in whether I wanted to do it or not… I wasn't given any choice where to work."
He said in his teens he had a full-time job in Gloriavale's hunting business - up to 70 hours a week.
He was also doing early morning milking two to three times a week.
He hated it but there was no other choice - it was "held over" members that they would "lose pretty much everything" if they decided to leave.
The only payment they received for their work was "food and clothes and the benefit of living there".
"You had to work because you owed them," Pilgrim told the court.
"The whole mindset was you got the benefits of the system and you worked because you owed them."
Pilgrim said his entire existence had changed since leaving the community.
"It's the difference between a slave and a free man… in Gloriavale I worked and I had life but I could not make my own decisions as to where I lived or how I lived," he said.
"Now with my work, I was paid a wage, I could make my own decisions, I can dress the way I want, I can travel, I can talk to who I want.
"It's a massive difference."