February 4, 2023

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Apple wants to end employee gag clauses after activist campaign

Apple has agreed to drop all clauses on employee gags related to workplace harassment in a bid to win over shareholders and activists who had pressured the iPhone maker’s board to investigate a workers’ uprising called Apple Together.

The commitment comes after an independent lawyer found cases where the $2.3 trillion company may have blocked employees from speaking out on sensitive issues related to discrimination and abuse.

In a note released this week titled “Our Commitment to an Open and Collaborative Workplace,” Apple said it is committed to “a safe, inclusive and respectful work environment” and that “employees have the right to speak freely about their working conditions “.

The tech giant said provisions that “could prevent a person’s ability to talk about it [unlawful] behavior” were only found in “limited cases” and that it “committed not to enforce these limitations and to make improvements and clarifications in the future”.

Kristin Hull, chief executive of Nia Capital, who co-led a petition with the Minderoo Foundation that garnered more than 50 percent support in a vote last March, said Apple’s concession was a victory for activists.

“Apple has agreed to remove non-disclosure clauses from employee contracts, for both full-time and contract workers,” she said. “That in itself is huge. Additionally, the fact that this commitment extends to both US and international workers is groundbreaking and should set the trend for the rest of US-based companies.”

Activist investors have stepped up their efforts in recent years. In 2020, Apple released its first-ever human rights policy, which committed to “freedom of information and expression” following shareholder movements.

Hull had previously argued that Apple’s policies were applied inconsistently and that the company didn’t appear to know whether its contractors were being asked to sign arbitration, non-disclosure, or non-discrimination agreements.

Her petition followed a series of allegations that Apple retaliated against employees who complained about discrimination. This led to the online Apple Together movement, with hundreds of employees collecting and sharing their stories.

Apple’s use of non-disclosure clauses drew widespread attention in November 2021, when Cher Scarlett, a former software engineer on her security team, broke her non-disclosure agreement by revealing to the media that Apple had made its severance package conditional on it, a labor complaint filed with the National Labour to withdraw from the Relations Board and agreed not to “encourage” other complaints against Apple.

Scarlett’s claim appeared to contradict Apple’s claim to the Securities and Exchange Commission that it “supports the right of its employees and contractors to speak freely about workplace issues,” and eight state treasurers have asked the SEC to investigate.

Nia successfully lobbied a majority of shareholders to support her call for an investigation by Apple, arguing that other tech companies like Pinterest had suffered negative backlash when workers broke their non-disclosure agreements and spoke out against racism. For Pinterest, it resulted in a $23 million settlement and a $50 million commitment to promoting diversity.

“When previously hidden discrimination or harassment issues surface, multiple employees can come forward at once, resulting in sudden and significant brand liability,” Nia said last year.