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Pressure on Apple is improving labor practices, says Times

Media coverage and rising awareness of rough working conditions in China's electronics factories have begun to turn things around, says a New York Times report. But there's still a long way to go.

Workers assemble and perform quality control checks on MacBook Pro display enclosures at an Apple supplier facility in Shanghai.

The attention brought to bear on the labor practices of Apple's manufacturers and suppliers in China may be starting to create real, positive change in the electronics industry, says an article published this evening in The New York Times.

The Times, along with other media outlets, published several high-profile reports this year on the practices of Apple suppliers -- including contract manufacturer Foxconn, which produces Apple's iPhone and iPad, as well as products for other companies. The reports also included looks at Apple's lack of manufacturing facilities in the U.S. and its tax strategies.

Such media attention -- and the entry of the issue into mainstream consciousness, by way of skits on "Saturday Night Live" and questions during the presidential debates -- has, the Times reports, compelled executives in the electronics industry to realize they need to turn things around.

"The days of easy globalization are done," the paper quotes an unidentified Apple executive as saying. "We know that we have to get into the muck now."

Some of the positive steps the Times mentions are decreased hours and increased wages at Foxconn; a tripling of Apple's corporate social responsibility staff; increased transparency from Apple on practices and progress; and a new willingness on the part of Apple to reach out to worker-advocacy groups. Apple has also, the Times reports, stopped treating these labor issues "like engineering puzzles" and has adopted a "messier, more human approach" -- one with an increased focus on listening to workers and labor groups as opposed to simply establishing more policies.

The negative attention on industry giants Apple and Foxconn, as well as the positive changes it has begun to foster, are affecting the industry at large, the Times reports, with companies like HP and Intel, as well as Foxconn's competitors, getting swept up in the jet stream.

Intel's director of corporate responsibility, Gary Niekerk, tells the news outlet, "This is on the front burner for everyone now." No one inside Intel "wants to end up in a factory that treats people badly, that ends up on the front page."

Still, Apple has much work to do, the Times says. For one thing, the company's famous secrecy -- and that of Silicon Valley as a whole -- extends, wrongheadedly, to the sharing of information that could help improve labor conditions. And Apple has yet to truly don the mantle of industry leader in regard to concern for workers. As the Times puts it:

Apple has not sought the high-profile leadership opportunities that have set off transformations in other industries. Nike, for instance, has convened public meetings of labor, human rights, environmental, and business leaders to discuss how to improve overseas factories. The clothing retailer Gap Inc. has invited outside organizations to critique its purchasing practices and publish their findings. Patagonia shares its factory audits with competitors and has been a vocal supporter of a centralized audit report clearinghouse that lets companies share information.

"That's the standard Apple has to meet," said a former Apple executive. "That's how a leader transforms an industry."

And the problem, too, is complex, and one that's not likely to be solved overnight, the Times reports. Some workers, for instance, were upset when Foxconn curtailed working hours. And there's a struggle between companies like Apple and their suppliers, like Foxconn, over which side should pay for improvements at manufacturing facilities.

Still, the Times concludes, though it may be slow-going, both Foxconn and Apple believe changes are "falling into place."

You can read the Times article in its entirety here. The paper has also published an extended statement from Apple on factory conditions in China, which says, among other things, "Apple is in a unique position to lead and we have embraced this role since the earliest days of our supplier responsibility program." You can read the entire statement here.