In a groundbreaking decision, the Supreme Court overturned the judgments of the Negombo High Court and a Labour Tribunal, affirming the termination of a male senior flight steward at SriLankan Airlines. The court, led by Justice Janak de Silva, held that the steward was responsible for grave misconduct in the sexual harassment of a female cabin crew member. Emphasizing SriLankan Airlines’ status as a state-owned enterprise, Justice de Silva stressed the need for a zero-tolerance policy towards any form of sexual harassment, applicable to both public and private sectors.
The charges against the steward date back to March 2005, involving an incident on a flight from Colombo to London. Identified as “X” in the judgment, the flight stewardess was subjected to sexual harassment, leading to the steward’s termination after a disciplinary inquiry found him guilty.
Following his dismissal, the steward sought reinstatement with back wages through the Labour Tribunal. In 2013, the Tribunal ruled in his favor, deeming the termination unjust, and ordered his reinstatement with a probationary period.
SriLankan Airlines appealed the decision to the Provincial High Court of the Western Province in Negombo, which dismissed the case. The Supreme Court, however, determined that the steward’s conduct amounted to “grave misconduct” and highlighted a troubling culture of sexual harassment among some flight stewards at the airline during the period 2004-2005.
The judgment referenced international obligations, citing Article 11(1) of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), emphasizing the need to eliminate discrimination in employment. The court underscored the impact of gender-specific violence, such as sexual harassment, on equality in the workplace, aligning with CEDAW General Recommendation No. 19 on violence against women.
Recognizing the steward’s actions as a violation of fundamental rights, the Supreme Court held that a citizen’s freedom to engage in lawful occupations depends on the creation of an environment free from sexual harassment. Article 4(d) of the Constitution was invoked, emphasizing the positive obligation of state-owned enterprises, like SriLankan Airlines, to respect and advance fundamental rights.
Attorney-at-law Manoli Jinadasa represented appellant SriLankan Airlines, while T. I Sapukotanage appeared for the respondent flight steward.