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Apple Inc. held its 2022 shareholder meeting virtually today. Despite attempts by the Free Enterprise Project (FEP) and other shareholders during the meeting to hold Apple to account for its relationship with the ruthless Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Apple nonetheless was able to prevent the passage of more than one China-targeted shareholder proposal and failed to provide any meaningful response regarding human rights abuses and forced labor. Indeed, Apple kept its friends in Beijing happy by ensuring that shareholder proposals aimed at addressing the many abuses of the CCP’s authoritarian regime were unsuccessful.

First, Apple recommended voting against a proposal calling out Apple for becoming a tool in China’s censorship machine. The proposal, which was ultimately rejected, would have required Apple to provide explanations of the number and categories of app removals from its App Store in response to (or in anticipation of) government requests that may reasonably be expected to limit freedom of expression or access to information. Had it passed, the proposal would have taken a critical step in shining light on the extent of Apple’s kowtowing to the CCP’s requests to remove apps that encourage freedom of speech and assembly within its borders. Indeed, the CCP has hindered protests and free expression in the once autonomous region of Hong Kong and elsewhere against the regime’s human rights abuses and other atrocities.

Next, Apple further recommended voting against a proposal asking it to draft a publicly-available report on the extent to which Apple effectively protects workers in its supply chain from forced labor. This would have included the “extent to which Apple has identified suppliers and sub-suppliers that are at significant risk for forced labor violations, the number of suppliers against which Apple has taken corrective action due to such violations, and the availability and use of grievance mechanisms to compensate affected workers.” In its statement in opposition to this much-needed proposal, Apple sought to sweep allegations of forced labor in its supply chain under the rug by boasting its “zero tolerance for forced labor” policy and touting the results of third-party audits that allegedly found no evidence of forced labor throughout Apple’s supply chain despite the myriad of reports to the contrary.

Then, with the two rejected Chinese transparency proposals sadly in the rearview mirror, FEP still refused to let Apple off the hook. FEP asked a question regarding forced labor and Apple’s ongoing relationship with China in spite of the company recently cutting Russian ties.

Rather than addressing our question head-on, Apple seemingly lumped it together with other general questions and concerns about its human rights record. Apple phrased the question instead as: “What steps is our company taking to ensure that the rare metals in its products are not contributing to human rights abuses?” In its response, Apple reiterated stale talking points about audits from its proxy materials and once again noted its intolerance for labor abuses:

We have a zero tolerance for any human rights abuses in our supply chain. It’s why we require all of our suppliers around the world to uphold the industry-leading standards in our supplier code of conduct in their respect for people and for the planet… Throughout our supply chain we work with human rights experts and companies around the world to conduct regular assessments of our suppliers, including surprise audits. Over the past year and a half, we conducted 1,100 audits in 53 countries around the world, and interviewed more than 57,000 workers to ensure their rights are respected.

Apple’s response, however, completely ignores the body of evidence of forced labor in Apple’s supply chain, which FEP documented in its question. For several years now, news outlets and independent organizations have reported on allegations that several of Apple’s suppliers use forced labor from China. And even the Congressional-Executive Commission on China has concluded that Apple’s supply chain is “tainted.” Last summer the Commission concluded:

The mounting evidence is beyond troubling. Despite persistent assurances from Apple that their supply chains were free of forced labor, we now have evidence that it is tainted.

However, Apple completely ignored these important aspects during its Q&A and has opted for en masse denials of forced labor instead of addressing these allegations with the time and attention they deserve.

Apple also ignored aspects of FEP’s question regarding the company’s swift condemnation of Russia while it continues its relationship with the Chinese government. Indeed, Apple’s refusal to address this issue comes the same week it announced it was halting sales of its products in Russia as well as pulling Russian state-backed media apps from its store due to Russia’s unprovoked war against Ukraine. Sadly, for the Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities in China, human rights abuses apparently only count so long as they’re not related to Apple’s supply chain.

To read FEP’s annotated question in its entirety, click here.
To listen to Apple’s question and response about human rights abuses, click here or watch below.

Author: Sarah Rehberg