The Employment Court has recently upheld the Employment Authority case where ex-members of a closed religious community were employees. This case involved a group of women who had left the community then sought to be recognised as employees of the community group for their time performing domestic services.

Female members of the community were expected from a young age to carry out work, which would incrementally increase as they got older until they progressed to working full time after they left school (at approximately 15 years old).

The work was structured into four core work types: cooking, cleaning, washing, and food preparation. Each team member is rostered into a particular area and worked under the day-to-day supervision of a team leader. The work that they were expected to complete was described as “unrelenting, grinding, hard, and physically and psychologically demanding.” For example, the female workforce in the kitchen produced more than 11,000 meals a week.

In order to determine the status of these women, the Court had to determine whether the workers were employees or volunteers. If they were determined to be volunteers then they would not be entitled to any of the benefits of being an employee such as meal breaks, holidays, sick leave and minimum pay.

For the purposes of the law, a volunteer must not be rewarded for the work that they perform, nor have an expectation that they would receive a reward for their services. As such, the Court looked at all relevant factors to determine the real nature of the relationship, particularly the level of direction and control that was exercised over the women.

The workers worked under strict direction and control of the community leaders and were subordinate to their wishes. They worked long hours for years on end and the work was considered essential to the operation of the community. The workers exercised little control over their tasks and were expected to show up. This was all indicative of an employee relationship existing.

The Court ultimately determined that in exchange for their work, the workers were permitted to remain in the community with their friends and family and continue to lead the life that they were familiar with.

By being a part of the work groups, they could continue to receive shelter, food, clothing, religious support and guidance and, most importantly, the promise of spiritual redemption. The community believed that any person that left to go to the outside world would face eternal damnation and therefore there was a high value placed on remaining in the community. This was sufficient to satisfy the Court that the workers were exchanging their work with the expectation of a reward.

Previously, the Labour Inspectorate had found that there were no employment relationships. As such, they will likely have to reopen their investigation to determine if any other employment relationships exist.

If a person is receiving things such as shelter, food, or clothing in exchange for work, then it may be that they are an employee. If an organisation has volunteers or unpaid interns then they should seek advice from a professional experienced in the area to ensure that they are volunteers or whether they would actually be considered employees.


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