Apple has heard the critics and is now ready to dig deeper into Foxconn's working conditions.
The iPhone maker announced today that it has asked the Fair Labor Association (FLA), an organization "dedicated to ending sweatshop conditions in factories worldwide," to investigate Foxconn facilities in Shenzhen and Chengdu, China.
The first inspections began this morning in the Shenzhen factory known as Foxconn City.
"We believe that workers everywhere have the right to a safe and fair work environment, which is why we've asked the FLA to independently assess the performance of our largest suppliers," Apple CEO Tim Cook said in a statement. "The inspections now underway are unprecedented in the electronics industry, both in scale and scope, and we appreciate the FLA agreeing to take the unusual step of identifying the factories in their reports."
Apple says that the FLA will interview "thousands of employees" about their working and living conditions, and will inspect Foxconn at "all stages" to determine how things are going at the company.
Foxconn workers have frequently described unsafe working conditions at factories, and a significant uptick in worker suicides in Shenzhen in 2010 triggered an outcry from many of the company's manufacturing partners, including Apple and Microsoft. Last month, hundreds of Foxconn workers threatened a mass suicide if their pay demands were not met. Foxconn was able to arrive at an agreement before the workers took that next step.
Although Apple doesn't own Foxconn, the company's close ties with the manufacturer, which produces iPhones and iPads, have put the Cupertino, Calif.-based company in critics' crosshairs. Cook said recently that Apple was monitoring the situation at Foxconn and that his company conducts audits and inspections.
But that may not yet have been enough. Last week, for instance, CNN published an interview with an 18-year-old Foxconn employee. The young girl, called "Miss Chen" to protect her identity, described forced overtime and the inability to receive benefits and sick days. Her job includes affixing stickers onto iPad screens, and her work life, she says, makes her feel dehumanized.
"It's so boring, I can't bear it anymore," she told CNN. "Everyday is like: I get off from work and I go to bed. I get up in the morning, and I go to work. It is my daily routine and I almost feel like an animal."
After that interview, watchdog groups SumOfUs and Change.org protested outside Apple stores, calling on the iPhone maker to improve supplier working conditions. The groups also delivered petitions signed by more than 250,000 people decrying Apple's relationship with Foxconn.
According to Apple, the FLA expects to make its Foxconn audit results available on its Web site next month. After that, the FLA will inspect Apple suppliers Quanta and Pegatron. By the time the FLA is done, facilities that produce more than 90 percent of Apple products will have been inspected.
Apple did not immediately reply to CNET's request for additional comment.
Update 6:15 a.m. PT to include more details.