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Sep 08, 2022

Apple faces workers’ rights shareholder proposal

Filed resolution urges company to conduct independent assessment

A coalition of investors including representatives of New York City and union members has filed a shareholder proposal with Apple regarding the company’s approach to workers’ rights.

The filing comes amid widely reported concerns about how some employers are responding to expanding unionization efforts. There has also been a growing focus among companies and investors on human capital management and how US companies treat their employees in general in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The proponents are New York City Comptroller Brad Lander, on behalf of the New York City retirement systems, Parnassus Investments, Service Employees International Union Master Trust Pension Plan, SOC Investment Group and Trillium Asset Management.

Specifically, the proposal urges Apple’s board to ‘commission and oversee an independent, third-party assessment of Apple’s adherence to its stated commitment to workers’ freedom of association and collective bargaining rights as contained in the International Labour Organization’s… Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and explicitly referenced in Apple’s human rights policy.

‘The assessment should apply to Apple’s direct and licensed operations and address management non-interference when employees exercise their right to form or join a trade union as well as steps to remedy any practices inconsistent with Apple’s stated commitments.’

In a supporting statement, the coalition says that since 2021 employees have accused Apple of engaging in ‘interference through intimidation tactics to deter organizing, including one-on-one manager meetings, captive audience meetings, retaliatory firings and threats of reduction or elimination of benefits. As of August 25, 2022, the National Labor Relations Board was investigating 14 charges of unfair labor practices.’

The proponents state: ‘We believe the apparent misalignment between Apple’s public commitments and its reported conduct represents meaningful reputational, legal and operational risks, and may negatively impact its long-term value. Failing to respect workers’ rights could harm Apple’s reputation with consumers and hurt its ability to attract and retain a high-performing workforce, a crucial element of its ability to provide quality products and service.’

Lander says in a statement: ‘Shareholders are increasingly concerned that Apple’s actions with respect to its workers’ rights do not match up with the company’s stated commitment to respect freedom of association. The reports of Apple’s consistent interference with the ability of workers to exercise their fundamental rights to unionize is deeply troubling… I urge Apple’s board to take swift action and address the issues we have laid out in our proposal.’

Apple has the option to engage with the proponents, put the measure into its 2023 proxy statement or seek SEC no-action relief for excluding the proposal. Gaining such relief in regards to ESG proposals has proven to be increasingly difficult under changed guidance the SEC’s division of corporation finance released last fall, according to governance professionals.

A request for comment from Apple was not returned immediately.

Apple’s 2022 AGM took place on March 4. At that meeting, shareholders voted in favor of proposals seeking a civil rights audit and a report on certain employment arrangements, both of which the company had opposed. A request for comment on those outcomes was not returned at the time.

Ben Maiden

Ben Maiden is the editor-at-large of Governance Intelligence, an IR Media publication, having joined the company in December 2016. He is based in New York. Ben was previously managing editor of Compliance Reporter, covering regulatory and compliance...