In a landmark ruling and also in a historic first, SriLankan Airlines the national carrier of Sri Lanka was found guilty and convicted in a criminal case by the Metropolitan Majistrate-05, Patiala House Court, New Delhi, India yesterday, when it failed to comply with an existing Indian Law, that was mandated and implemented in 2013, to ensure employers both local and foreign provide protection to women against sexual harassment at the workplace.
This is the first such conviction that a court in India has made against any employer, be it local or foreign for violating this law.
The airline’s conviction in this case has a direct relevance to another case that was being heard concurrently, when on the 16th September 2020, Lalith De Silva the former Sri Lankan Airlines Regional Manager was found guilty and convicted for sexually harassing and insulting the modesty of one of his Indian national female staff members, during the time he was stationed by the airline in New Delhi, India.
Whilst the former SriLankan Airlines employee, filed the case against the national carrier for its failure to have an International Complaint Committee (ICC) under Indian law and sought prosecution, the case against Lalith De Silva the former Regional Manager was filed by the State of India.
Currently both SriLankan Airlines as an employer of staff in India and also its former Regional Manager Lalith De Silva stand convicted, with both parties awaiting sentencing for their respective crimes committed.
Whilst SriLankan Airlines stands to be penalized a maximum sum of Rs 50,000 for its convicted offense under Section 26, Lalith de Silva’s conviction could land him in jail for up to three years, which could also include a fine.
The sentencing of Lalith De Silva is scheduled to be heard on the 21st of March 2021.
The ruling in the case of the former employee against SriLankan Airlines was given by the presiding Judge Dev Saroha.
This case was initially filed in December 2015 and where SriLankan Airlines was summoned to appear in court on the 13th May 2016.
The victim sought prosecution of the airline for not having an Internal Complaint Committee, as mandated under Section 4 of the “The Sexual Harassment of Women At Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition And Redressal) Act of 2013”.
This is after she was victimized by her former New Delhi based Regional Manager Lalith De Silva.
With no Internal Complaint Committee set up by SriLankan Airlines for its staff in India, the victim was asked to convey her grievances to the airline’s head office situated overseas in Colombo Sri Lanka.
It is believed that the Senior Management of Sri Lankan Airlines, appeared to be biased in handling this grievance and complaint, as it was blatantly obvious that the actions of its Regional Manager was condoned by the Senior Management of SriLankan Airlines.
The Human Resources Department headed then by Pradeepa Kekulawela, who besides failing to ensure that basic laws pertaining as such be followed and implemented to protect the best interest of the national carrier in a foreign land, was more interested in providing Lalith De Silva five star comfort in travelling in Business Class at the cost of Sri Lankan Airlines over the years to attend a case filed against him, which was of a personal nature.
A Senior Manager who has served the airline for over three decades speaking to Colombo Telegraph on condition of anonymity said “This is a really sad day for all of us at SriLankan Airlines. This type of behaviour has been happening over the years and it is people like the former Head of Human Resources, who have been covering up many of these complaints to protect the Senior Management. I only hope the Board of Directors and the Chairman and CEO get Lalith De Silva to reimburse every penny it spent on him regarding this case, which was more of a personal nature that was filed by the State of India. Due to him, even a flaw of non-compliance by the national carrier was exposed that has now even seen our airline been convicted and further shamed globally.”
Incidentally Pradeepa Kekulawela’s services ended at the end of November 2020.
However it is still to be established if Kekulawela’s termination of employment was due to his letter of resignation being accepted by the airline or if he was terminated due to the direct impact it had on his failure to protect the national carrier due to his incompetence.
A further school of thought that cannot be ruled out is also due to the vast number of complaints being made regarding him abusing his authority and in offering promotions to female employees in exchange for granting of sexual favours.
Earlier when an English newspaper reported the news on the conviction of its Former Regional Manager, the airline in its bid to squash the bad publicity, issued a statement to its staff indicating that the airline was not implicated in the issue involving the former employer.
However, in its statement the airline failed to inform its staff that the victim had also filed a case against the airline for its negligence in handling this issue and not adhering to the stipulated laws of India as an overseas employer.
The complainant’s Lawyer Ajay Verma speaking to Colombo Telegraph said “The conviction of the Sri Lankan Airlines will send a strong message to all corporate entities operating in India to strictly adhere to the Laws formulated to protect women employees against sexual harassment. The victim has been fighting a long battle to seek justice not only for herself but for other working women who face such harassment. The law came into existence in 2013 and the verdict has paved the way for other women to seek justice in the event their employers do not follow the law against sexual harassment. The airline has been insensitive to this woman’s case. In this case the victim was illegally terminated, which has already been stayed by another court, despite that the victim was not allowed to work and has not been paid her salary for years”.
Even though the total fine itself is of negligible proportions to a national carrier such as SriLankan Airlines, it is in fact the stigma and shame that this conviction now brings, especially as the airline has gone on to expose its gross negligence.
Over the years when several complaints were made that the Senior Management of the national carrier were sexually harassing its very own female employees, they were viewed as only mere allegations.
In most instances female victims did not have sufficient proof to support their cases.
However these two convictions now wipes out any doubt that rampant sexual abuse of female employees did take place in the past and still does within the national carrier of Sri Lanka even now.
Despite several staff fearlessly walking in and providing information of such incidents to two state conducted investigations, which were ordered to be carried out during the former Yahapalanaya government, they were simply brushed aside with no action taken.
This is despite strong recommendations being made by Lawyer J.C.Weliamuna who headed the first investigation and Additional Solicitor General Neil Unamboowe who subsequently headed the Presidential Commission of Inquiry thereafter.
Reports of sexual harassment did not merely stop with the Senior Management of the national carrier sexually harassing only their female junior staff.
A particular incident was also reported to the Presidential Commission of Inquiry, where a staff member had gone on to sexually abuse a travelling female passenger on board the aircraft.
In that shocking incident, a Pilot who was utilizing a premium seat in the forward cabin as part of his inflight rest on his way to London Heathrow, was reported by the female passenger seated next to him for inappropriately touching her breasts.
Whilst the passenger screamed and ran to the forward galley and complained to the operating Flight Purser, Sri Lankan Airlines went on to brush this incident under the carpet.
The same Pilot who was reported to the Presidential Commission of Inquiry was also subsequently removed off his flying roster and regarding another incident and sent to Nawaloka Hospital PLC for a psychiatric evaluation.
This is when he was reported to the Senior Management of Flight Operations in 2018, for stalking and harassing a female employee of a foreign airline that flies into Colombo.
For his misfortune the said lady he was harassing in this instance, happened to be the wife of a known investigative journalist within the aviation circle.
The said Pilot having been cleared medically continues to be employed as a Bona Fide employee of the Airline as of today.
This verdict and conviction made by the Patiala House Court New Delhi against SriLankan Airlines yesterday, now goes on to prove, that besides the airline not respecting Indian Laws, it also exposes the serious blunder made by its Senior Management of its own Human Resources and Legal Departments, for displaying their incompetence in fulfilling their basic duties and responsibilities in safeguarding the best interest of the airline. (By Janaka Ranaweera)