A former member of the secretive Gloriavale community says residents there are "brainwashed" from a young age with women expected to cook, clean and sew for long hours without taking breaks.
The allegations were made at an Employment Court hearing, where it's being argued women there are employees - not volunteers as the leadership has claimed.
There was a show of unity outside the Christchurch courthouse from Gloriavale, as a busload of current residents arrived before the hearing to back the community's shepherds, or leaders.
Resident Priscilla Steadfast said it was all about ensuring their side of the story was heard.
"We just want to voice what we believe, and how we feel and not have other people voice our voice for us," she said.
They were there to listen to a case all about the working conditions and life at Gloriavale, painted by current residents as enjoyable and normal.
Another resident Charity Christian said she loved Gloriavale and didn't mind working hard.
"That's life, I love working," she told Newshub.
But inside the courtroom, the reality of working life for women was put bluntly by a lawyer for the six women who are taking the case, Brian Henry.
"This proceeding was aptly described by the second defence counsel as dark, and the truth is it is dark," he said.
He went on to describe the women's working conditions as "scandalous", saying women in Gloriavale were totally subjected to the rule of men.
Henry's representing six former residents who say women had no choice but to cook, clean or sew on a commercial scale for the 600 residents from a young age.
"They were under the control of the shepherds and had no freedom."
The case is all about whether those working at Gloriavale are employees rather than volunteers.
Former resident and one of the six taking the case against the leaders is Serenity Pilgrim. She described working from the age of seven, and the role of women in the community.
"Women are supposed to cook, clean and do washing and do household things. And have kids. I would definitely call it brainwashing, because right from day one you grow up knowing you don't have the option of even being able to think about what you want to do," she said.
Pilgrim said she worked such long hours she often didn't have time to eat.
"I would definitely not call the work I did voluntary, because I did not have any choice", she said.
That's because she says the leaders controlled everything. Overseeing shepherd Howard Temple will give evidence in the case.
"I would rather not comment now," he said.
However, another leader told Newshub a collection of current residents turned up in a show of togetherness.
Leader Peter Righteous told Newshub residents are here to support the leaders and meet Gloriavale's lawyers in person. He said the case was an "important issue", and they "didn't want to be seen as ignoring it".
Gloriavale denies the allegations of abuse and exploitation - and will be calling its own witnesses who will claim former residents have "waged a campaign" against the community.
Gloriavale's lawyer Philip Skelton QC said the claims made were disputed by current members.
"They will say that the plaintiff's evidence has been systemically cherry-picked and exaggerated to present the darkest possible image of Gloriavale," he said.
Resident Charity Christian had a glowing appraisal of the leaders at Gloriavale, saying "they're the most caring people that I have ever met".
But that claim is strongly rejected by the former residents taking the case, who believe their only purpose while inside was to serve them and obey.
Serenity Pilgrim told the court she worked 90-hour weeks and even when sick, it was expected you "suck it up" and get on with the day.
When she left Gloriavale at the age of 16 to seek a better life she weighed 38 kilograms, and within two years put on 15 kilograms. She put that down to often not having proper meals while at Gloriavale due to her busy workload cleaning and preparing meals.
The trial is set down for four weeks.
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