World and Nation

Apple, in shift, pushes an audit of sites in China

Responding to a growing outcry over conditions at its overseas factories, Apple said Monday that an outside organization had begun to audit working conditions at the plants where the bulk of iPhones, iPads and other Apple products are built, and that the group would make its finding public.

For years, Apple has resisted calls for independent scrutiny of the suppliers that make its electronics. But for the first time it has begun divulging information that it once considered secret, following criticism that included coordinated protests last week at Apple stores and investigative reports about punishing conditions inside some factories.

Corporate analysts say Apple’s shifts could incite widespread changes throughout the electronics industry, since a lot of companies use the same suppliers. They also said it seemed calculated to forestall the kind of public relations problems over labor issues that have afflicted companies like Nike, Gap and Disney.

“This is a really big deal,” said Sasha Lezhnev at the Enough Project, a group focused on corporate accountability. “The whole industry has to follow whatever Apple does.”

But it is unclear if the efforts by Apple, whose $469 billion market value is the largest of any company in the world, will be enough to quiet its critics, some of whom had urged Apple to work with Chinese monitoring organizations with direct knowledge of its suppliers in China.

Although some labor groups applauded Monday’s announcement, others said that the outside auditor Apple chose, the Fair Labor Association, which is based in Washington, was not sufficiently independent. And some critics questioned whether the inspections — Apple said the manufacturers had agreed to do them voluntarily — would curtail problems or merely help Apple deflect criticism.

Apple, in a statement, said that the Fair Labor Association was an independent organization that had been given “unrestricted access” to the company’s suppliers. The first inspections, Apple said, were conducted Monday at a factory in Shenzhen, China, known as Foxconn City, one of the largest plants within China.

Human rights advocates have long said that Foxconn City’s 230,000 employees are subjected to long hours, coerced overtime and harsh working conditions, all of which Foxconn disputes.