Apple took a significant step today in the face of increasing pressure to do something about the working conditions at the factories of its suppliers in China. The company announced that it has asked an independent auditing agency to review practices at the factories in Chengdu and Shenzhen, and for the first time will specify which factories are found guilty of abuses.

Previously Apple had conducted its own reviews of the manufacturers in its supply chain, and while the company has acknowledged that in some cases transgressions were found, it never identified which particular factories were responsible.

The Fair Labor Association said today that it has already begun inspecting the facilities of Foxconn— the controversial manufacturer responsible for assembling most iPhones and iPads— at the request of Apple.

“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.”

The FLA's independent assessment will include interviews with thousands of Foxconn employees about their working and living conditions, including "health and safety, compensation, working hours and communication with management," according to the statement.

Results from the inspections will be posted online at in early March. In addition to Foxconn, the FLA will also review several other Apple suppliers, including Quanta and Pegatron. In the end, the factories responsible for producing fully 90 percent of Apple's current product line will have been subjected to the organization's public review.

[via NYT]