As I write this, I'm looking over our family's iPad. It's beautiful -- as I'm sure the late Steve Jobs would have loved to hear -- elegant and easy to turn on and off instantly.

It's great for reading magazines, playing Angry Birds, sharing family photos, watching movies and so many other things. It's a marvel of design and engineering that brings joy and enlightenment to millions of people.

The iPad is just the culmination of a series of wonderful products that have transformed Apple (AAPL, news) into the leading consumer-electronics company of our time. It has vied with Exxon Mobil (XOM, news) as the most valuable publicly traded company in the world, with a market capitalization of more than $400 billion. Apple sold 37 million iPhones worldwide in its first fiscal quarter and blew past analysts' expectations for revenue and earnings.

But that joy, enlightenment and phenomenal success come at a price: The iPad and the iPhone are manufactured in some of the world's worst electronic sweatshops.

Recent articles in The New York Times have revealed as never before how Apple's development of a largely Asian supply chain in the past decade helped the company turn out tens of millions of gleaming new devices in record time while largely bypassing the U.S. workforce.

But the Chinese factories on which it relies, particularly the massive complexes run by Foxconn Technology Group, have been riddled with problems -- low pay, long hours and terrible working and living conditions, which have resulted in suicides and deaths and injuries from industrial accidents.

Apple has tried to hold its suppliers to higher standards in recent years, but two experts I spoke with said it hadn't done enough. The company's critics accuse it of squeezing suppliers' margins to make higher profits and constantly pushing for quick turnaround of new products, which almost guarantees safety won't come first.

Change under way

The Times articles and other discussions may be a catalyst for change. In the days before the stories appeared, Apple released the names of almost all its suppliers for the first time and quietly joined an organization known for its tough audits of safety standards at factories around the world.

Investors, too, are taking note. Managers of so-called socially conscious funds are divided on Apple -- some buy it, some don't -- but they're concerned that any serious consumer push-back could affect the company's bottom line and its soaring share price.

"This has to be a challenge to them of the first magnitude," said Bennett Freeman, senior vice president at Calvert Investments, whose socially conscious funds own Apple stock.

"Apple has earned a reputation for historic, almost epic product innovation. Apple can't have it both ways. They have a responsibility to their customers and shareholders," he told me. "The Times piece . . . crystallized the extent and severity of their risk."

The articles said, in short, that Apple has become reliant on a global chain of suppliers like Foxconn, a Taiwan-based electronics manufacturing giant, whose massive complexes in several Chinese cities each employ hundreds of thousands of workers. Foxconn manufactures about 40% of the world's consumer-electronics products for companies such as Dell (DELL, news), Hewlett-Packard (HPQ, news), Microsoft (MSFT, news) and Sony (SNE, news).

Conditions can be brutal. Workers routinely work 12-hour shifts six days a week and are paid less than $20 a day. Many live in overcrowded dormitories where several are crammed into small rooms with no air conditioning. There have been many reports of underage workers employed there, although a recent Apple audit of its suppliers found that number had decreased.

Work is repetitive and stressful: 17 Foxconn workers in China have committed suicide over the last few years. So, Foxconn installed huge nets to break would-be jumpers' falls.

Workers also were exposed to toxic chemicals and dangerous levels of dust, which caused a fatal explosion in Foxconn's Chengdu, China, plant last year.

So, why single out Apple if Foxconn and other suppliers manufacture products for so many other companies?

"On paper the company has instituted programs that we see among the better performers," said Meggin Thwing Eastman, a senior environmental, social and governance analyst at MSCI who specializes in technology and telecom companies. "(But) I have some doubts about the execution. We see things at Apple that we don't see at other companies."

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