Working closely with the Gupta brothers on a daily basis came with perks for female employees: extensive international travel, for one, together with other ad-hoc gifts and rewards. But the downside was allegedly very dark indeed.
Atul Gupta. Picture: AFP
Working closely with the Gupta brothers on a daily basis came with perks for female employees: extensive international travel, for one, together with other ad-hoc gifts and rewards. But the downside was allegedly very dark indeed. Sexual harassment by at least two of the Gupta brothers of their female personal assistants has been alleged by three former employees – with cash payouts and the threat of unemployment allegedly used to silence the women in question.
By AmaBhungane and Scorpio.
“It was the worst 24 hours of my life.”
That is how a former personal assistant to Tony Gupta describes her time working for him. She lasted just one day.
Her name and identity has been confirmed by Scorpio, but for her own protection we will call her Christine. All the women who spoke to us for this story insisted on anonymity out of fear for their personal safety.
Christine said that on the first – and only – day of working for Tony Gupta, she was required to accompany him from Johannesburg on what would be an overnight business trip to Cape Town. On the Guptas’ private jet, Tony Gupta did not speak to her at all. Upon arrival at a house in Cape Town, she was offered a Coke to drink and told that she was not allowed to use her cellphone at any time.
“I couldn’t even let my husband know I was there safely,” Christine remembers. She was then instructed to go into a bedroom for a “meeting” with Tony Gupta.
“He told me that all his PAs are expected to give him massages and sleep in the same bed as him,” Christine says. “I told him I was not comfortable with that and would prefer my own bed and bathroom. He then asked me to give him a massage. I declined.”
She says that throughout her time in the house, she was offered no food but continuously urged to accept Cokes to drink.
“I had another Coke and I don’t know what happened, but it was like I had been drinking [alcohol],” Christine says.
While Tony Gupta had a meeting in another part of the house, he allegedly proceeded to lock Christine in the bedroom. By now thoroughly frightened – and unable to shake the suspicion that her drinks might have been spiked with something – Christine used her cellphone to call her husband and tell him what was happening.
“[Tony Gupta] walked in and asked me what I was doing. He told me I wasn’t allowed to be on the phone.” Desperately seeking an excuse to leave, Christine told him that her grandmother had unexpectedly died. “He put his arms around me and said ‘You’re not going’,” she says.
At this point, the two were interrupted by the woman with whom Tony Gupta had conducted his earlier meeting, which is what Christine credits with the fact that she was eventually permitted to leave.
“I ran out of the gate so fast I left three items in the house, including a cellphone charger,” she says. “I actually hid in a bush waiting for [a relative] to come fetch me.”
When she was safely away, Christine immediately emailed her resignation to Sahara CEO Ashu Chawla. The email is part of the #GuptaLeaks trove, and it reads: “I, [Name], [ID number], hereby hand in my resignation letter with immediate effect under the circumstances of Sexual Harassment”.
Christine’s husband subsequently confronted Chawla and the Guptas about what had happened.
“They accused me of dancing provocatively,” says Christine, “which I did not.” Christine’s husband was given R10,000 in cash to go away.
Christine’s experience was allegedly not isolated. Another former PA contacted by Scorpio, who was in the Guptas’ employ for a short period, claimed that stories of this nature were common. On several occasions, she suggested, the Guptas may have made cash payouts to prevent the stories from becoming public.
A third former female employee, who worked for the Guptas for several years, and who we shall call Janet to protect her identity, told Scorpio: “All three [Gupta] brothers tried their luck with me.”
Ajay Gupta, Janet said, “tried to get me to touch him inappropriately.” Tony Gupta allegedly tried to blackmail her into sexual favours if she wished to keep her job. Details of further incidents have been given to Scorpio, but cannot be published due to the victim’s concern that identifying details may lead to recriminations against her.
“I kept this information to myself in fear of losing my job, which I really needed back then,” Janet says. “But now that I think of it I was given ‘gifts’ to keep me quiet. After every [inappropriate] incident, I would get a small ‘payback’ for all my hard work.”
Ajay Gupta, Janet says, would “force himself on me and kiss me multiple times. I eventually just let it happen to make sure I didn’t lose my job. He would put my hand down his pants.”
Janet was also allegedly asked to “entertain” high profile guests.
“I am not sure what they expected, as I refused to hear any of it and just said no before details were discussed,” she says.
The Guptas have successfully kept such experiences out of the media until now. But their wider business empire also saw allegations of sexual harassment, suggesting that a sex-pest culture went beyond the Guptas’ immediate employ.
In 2011, a court case against Sahara Computers was brought by a female employee whose name is known to Scorpio, who alleged that a male employee subjected her to persistent sexual harassment. In court papers, she claimed that Sahara failed to create a safe workplace environment. The judge agreed, finding that Sahara “delayed overly in taking action”, and awarded the plaintiff R60,000 and costs.
An appeal by Sahara failed, and in 2014 Gary Naidoo – managing editor of The New Age newspaper and frequent Gupta family spokesperson – emailed Atul Gupta: “I think we should just settle [the case] as I am not confident because the last two attempts proved unsuccessful and we should try to minimize negative publicity around this case.”
There is no record within the email trove of Atul Gupta’s response.
Gupta lawyer Gert van der Merwe referred a request for comment on these allegations to Gary Naidoo, who provided an email address for Oakbay’s corporate communications unit, which did not yield a response.
• Scorpio is the Daily Maverick’s new investigative unit. The amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism is an independent non-profit. Be an amaB supporter to help it do more. Sign up for its newsletter to get more.