However, the inspector was not done.
He turned to the only Apple executive in the room, the senior vice president for operations, Jeff Williams.
Apple needed to change as well, Van Heerden said. Apple, to its credit, had been working for years to improve conditions in overseas factories, but the company was treating such problems too much like engineering puzzles, he said.
“Long-term solutions require a messier, more human approach,” he told Williams.
Instead of concentrating on writing more policies, Apple needed to listen better to workers’ complaints and advocacy groups’ recommendations.
Some of those suggestions surprised Williams, people who worked with him said. Since 2007, Apple had built one of the most extensive auditing programs in the electronics industry, inspecting more than 800 facilities. It was a point of pride for both Williams and the company’s top leadership.
When Williams, who declined to comment for this article, returned from that March meeting to California, changes began. Among them, people with firsthand knowledge said, was the hiring of about 30 professionals into Apple’s social responsibility unit in the past year, which tripled the size of that division and brought high-profile corporate activists into the company. Two widely respected former Apple executives — Jacky Haynes and Bob Bainbridge — were recruited back to help lead the unit, reporting ultimately to Williams and the chief executive, Timothy Cook.
“Everyone knows Bob and Jacky,” a former Apple executive said. “It sends a message that Jeff and Tim expect everyone to get on board.”
“They know now if they don’t participate, it is the same as saying nothing,” the former executive said.
Foxconn has also shifted. After the meeting with the Fair Labor Association, Foxconn announced that by July next year, no employee would be allowed to work more than an average of 49 hours a week — the limit set by Chinese law. Previously, some Foxconn employees worked schedules that approached 100 hours a week. No other major manufacturer has pledged to abide by China’s work-hour laws in such a public manner. Foxconn, which is based in Taiwan, also promised to increase wages, so employees’ total pay would not decline despite fewer hours — the equivalent of a 50 percent raise for many workers, analysts say.
About 300km southeast of the factory where Pu received her new chair is another plant that is experimenting with improving workers’ quality of life — and shows the trade-offs of such gains.
The factory in Chongqing makes computers for Hewlett-Packard. It is operated by Quanta Computer (廣達), another Taiwanese manufacturer.
Inside the plant, amid thousands of workers in bright white uniforms, are occasional flashes of pink worn by people like Zhang Xuemei, a bubbly 19-year-old with glinting earrings whose sole job is to chat with co-workers.
For eight hours a day, Zhang collects complaints about the factory’s free meals and dorms. She listens to workers who are divorcing, homesick or arguing with managers. When she finds someone suffering, she refers them to the company’s full-time doctor or professional counselors.