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The New York Times has published a lengthy report titled “In China, Human Costs Are Built Into an iPad.” It begins with a scene that no Apple employee could feel particularly proud to read: “The explosion ripped through Building A5 on Friday evening last May, an eruption of fire and noise that twisted metal pipes as if they were discarded straws.” The story goes on to relate that the explosion came from an area of a Foxconn factory in Chengdu, where workers did nothing but polish iPad cases, thousands of them each day. Two workers died instantly in the blast, with more than 12 others injured.

Apple has had a number of gadflies biting at it lately, little voices of conscience telling it, and the world, that it could do more to improve the conditions of its workers. Mike Daisey, whose investigative monologue “The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” he then turned into a This American Life report, is one of the more prominent ones. Though Daisey’s monologue ended with an exhortation for his audience members to reach out to Apple, Steve Jobs was reportedly nonplussed about Daisey’s work: “Mike doesn’t appreciate the complexity of the situation,” Jobs was reported to have said about the monologue.

This week, the factors in the equation are different. The particularly withering report is in the Paper of Record–and Apple has a new CEO at the helm. It’s not clear which factor here is more salient, but what’s certain is that Apple’s response this week is uncharacteristic.

9to5Mac says it has an email that CEO Tim Cook sent out to all of his employees. “As a company and as individuals, we are defined by our values,” begins his letter. “Unfortunately some people are questioning Apple’s values today, and I’d like to address this with you directly. We care about every worker in our worldwide supply chain. Any accident is deeply troubling, and any issue with working conditions is cause for concern. Any suggestion that we don’t care is patently false and offensive to us.”

The email is long–certainly longer than one of Steve Jobs’s characteristic brief emails–and markedly defensive in tone. “Every year we inspect more factories, raising the bar for our partners and going deeper into the supply chain… We are attacking problems aggressively with the help of the world’s foremost authorities on safety, the environment, and fair labor… We are focused on educating workers about their rights, so they are empowered to speak up when they see unsafe conditions or unfair treatment.” And for employees who were still a little bit troubled, Cook referred them to a section of the company website: http://www.apple.com/supplierresponsibility/

The email did not mention the New York Times report directly (“some people”), nor did it directly dispute some of the more troubling bits of that story. One of the most damning quotes came from a former Apple executive (whom the Times unfortunately wasn’t able to get to go fully on the record with his or her name). Said this source: “We’ve known about labor abuses in some factories for four years, and they’re still going on… Why? Because the system works for us. Suppliers would change everything tomorrow if Apple told them they didn’t have another choice… If half of iPhones were malfunctioning, do you think Apple would let it go on for four years?”

It may well be, as Cook says, that Apple has displayed “the actions of a leader” and that Apple “was in a unique position to lead the industry” by allowing the Fair Labor Association to begin evaluating the company’s supply chains. But, to judge from recent reports, just because Apple is leading doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have a long way to go, and that it couldn’t move a little faster.

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