Foxconn: Apple will help pay to make working here better

Credit: Bowen Liu/Apple Inc. via Bloomberg

A Reuters report Thursday says Apple(s AAPL) will help defray the costs of improving the working conditions at the factories of its most important manufacturing partner, Foxconn.

Without saying how much of the costs Apple plans to cover, or even how much money overall he’s talking about, Foxconn’s chief executive Terry Gou told Reuters:

“We’ve discovered that this (improving factory conditions) is not a cost. It is a competitive strength,” Gou told reporters Thursday after the ground-breaking ceremony for a new China headquarters in Shanghai.

“I believe Apple sees this as a competitive strength along with us, and so we will split the initial costs.”

 The working and living conditions of Foxconn employees, as well as excessive overtime requirements, brought intense scrutiny to both Foxconn and Apple earlier this year thanks to a now largely debunked story reported by monologist Mike Daisey as well as a multi-part investigation by The New York Times. Apple also released its own supplier report reflecting labor violations at Foxconn and other partners’ plants and later published the results of third-party auditors it sent to perform follow-up inspections.

In the aftermath of the negative public attention, Foxconn promised to cut down on overtime, improve facility conditions and raise salaries. It’s not entirely clear if these are the costs that Apple will help pay for, according to Gou.

I’ve reached out to Apple for clarification and will update the story if I hear back.

It should be noted that Apple’s relationship with its contract manufacturers hadn’t been really discussed publicly until Tim Cook stepped into the full-time chief executive role. Concern first arose over Foxconn’s labor issues several years ago with a spate of suicides among workers, but Apple had very little to say about that at the time.

Besides responding to outrage over worker mistreatment when these reports arose in January, overseeing the first public release of Apple’s supplier report and ordering third-party audits, Cook has tried to improve Apple’s image on this issue by other means. He spent a good chunk of his remarks at a February investor conference expressing his concern over working conditions at Apple’s contract manufacturing partners and offered details about Apple’s worker education initiatives. Apple also released a photo of Cook meeting with Foxconn workers on the factory floor during a trip to China in March.

But if this report pans out, this latest move is more than a photo opp or talk to impress investors or potential customers — this is starting to look like Cook’s mark on Apple.