Apple has asked an outside organization to conduct special audits of working conditions inside Chinese factories where iPhones, iPads and other Apple products are manufactured and to identify particular facilities where abuses are discovered.

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Apple said Monday that it had asked an outside organization to conduct special audits of working conditions inside Chinese factories where iPhones, iPads and other Apple products are manufactured. And in a significant about-face for the company that has the potential to affect the electronics industry, Apple asked the organization to identify particular facilities where abuses are discovered.

Apple said the group, the Fair Labor Association (FLA), started its first inspections Monday at a factory in Shenzhen, China, known as Foxconn City, one of the largest plants in China, with more than 230,000 workers. Human-rights advocates have long said that Foxconn City’s employees are subjected to long hours, coerced overtime and harsh working conditions, all of which Foxconn disputes.

Working conditions in Foxconn factories, including safety lapses that led to worker deaths, were the subject of a New York Times investigation last month. Last week, coordinated protests of worker abuses occurred at Apple stores around the world.

Since 2007, Apple has released a yearly audit detailing labor violations and unsafe conditions among its suppliers. More than half the suppliers audited by Apple every year since then have violated at least one aspect of the company’s code of conduct and in some instances have violated the law, according to Apple’s reports.

But because Apple’s public disclosures are vague regarding where abuses are discovered, it has been impossible to determine which facilities are bad actors. It also has been impossible to determine if conditions have improved, as Apple has claimed.

If the labor association releases data on specific facilities, it will transform the efforts of advocates and workers to draw attention to the worst performers. Apple, in its statement, said the group’s findings and recommendations from its first inspections will most likely be posted online in early March on the group’s website, www.fairlabor.org.

The factories inspected by the group also manufacture goods for almost every other electronics company, including Dell, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Lenovo, Motorola, Nokia, Sony, Toshiba and others. Advocates say that if specific abuses are tied to particular factories, it will very likely create industrywide pressure for companies and plants to change.

At Apple’s request, the labor group will also audit Apple’s other main assembly factories, including Foxconn’s plant in Chengdu and facilities run by Quanta and Pegatron.

Separate explosions last year at Foxconn’s iPad plant in Chengdu and at Pegatron’s iPad plant in Shanghai killed four people and injured 77.

Apple said Monday that its suppliers had pledged to give the labor group unrestricted access to their operations during its inspections.

Apple said the organization would “interview thousands of employees about working and living conditions including health and safety, compensation, working hours and communication with management.” It also will inspect manufacturing areas, worker dormitories and other facilities, the company said.

“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,” Tim Cook, Apple’s chief executive, said in a statement. While worker advocates generally applauded Apple’s move, some have been critical of Apple’s selection of the FLA.

In January, the company said it would join the group, becoming the first technology company to do so, to help improve conditions in its suppliers’ factories. The news was released along with a report that Apple releases about every year based on its own inspections of factories. That report documented numerous labor violations, including factories where employees worked longer than 60-hour weekly limits and were not paid proper overtime.

When completed, Apple said, the FLA inspections will cover factories where more than 90 percent of Apple’s products are assembled.

Apple stock

closes at $502.60

Investors keep bidding up Apple’s shares in the wake of the company’s staggering sales and profit over its holiday quarter.

Apple’s stock closed above $500 for the first time Monday, closing at $502.60, giving the company a market capitalization of $465 billion. Exxon Mobil, which has been trading the No. 1 position with Apple since last summer, has a $400 billion market cap.

Apple iPads seized

over name dispute

Authorities have seized Apple iPads from retailers in a city in northern China because of a dispute with a domestic company that says it owns the iPad name, an official said Monday. The Chinese company said it is asking for similar action in more than 20 other cities.

The dispute with Shenzhen Proview Technology threatens to complicate Apple’s efforts to sell its popular tablet computer in China.

Investigators started seizing iPads on Thursday in Shijiazhuang, southwest of Beijing, after receiving letters from Shenzhen Proview, said an official of the economic investigation unit of the city’s Xinhua district. He wouldn’t say how many devices had been seized or the number of retailers affected.

An Apple spokeswoman in Beijing, Carolyn Wu, declined to comment.

Shenzhen Proview registered the iPad name in China in 2001. Apple bought rights to the name from a Taiwan affiliate, Proview Taipei, that registered it in various countries as early as 2000. The mainland company says it still owns the name in China.

Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.