CHENGDU, China -- One day last summer, Pu Xiaolan was halfway through a shift inspecting iPad cases when she received a beige wooden chair with white stripes and a high, sturdy back.
At first, Ms. Pu wondered if someone had made a mistake. But when her bosses walked by, they nodded curtly. So Ms. Pu gently sat down and leaned back. Her body relaxed. The rumors were true.
When Ms. Pu was hired at this Foxconn plant a year earlier, she received a short, green plastic stool that left her unsupported back so sore that she could barely sleep at night. Eventually, she was promoted to a wooden chair, but the backrest was too small to lean against. Managers at this 164,000-employee factory, she surmised, believed that comfort encouraged sloth.
But in March, a critical meeting had occurred between Foxconn's top executives and a high-ranking Apple official. The companies committed themselves to a series of wide-ranging overhauls.
Foxconn, China's largest private employer, pledged to sharply curtail workers' hours and significantly increase wages -- overhauls that, if fully carried out next year as planned, could create a ripple effect that benefits tens of millions of workers across the electronics industry, employment experts say.
The changes also extend to California, where Apple is based. Apple, the electronics industry's behemoth, in the last year has tripled its corporate social responsibility staff, re-evaluated how it works with manufacturers, asked competitors to help curb excessive overtime in China and reached out to advocacy groups it once rebuffed.
Executives at companies such as Hewlett-Packard and Intel say those shifts have persuaded many electronics firms also to overhaul how they interact with foreign plants and workers, often at a cost to bottom lines -- though, analysts say, probably not so much as to affect consumer prices.
"This is a disgrace!" shouted Terry Gou, founder and chairman of Foxconn, the world's largest electronics manufacturer and Apple's most important industrial partner. It was March of this year, and Mr. Gou -- seen by activists as a longtime obstacle to improving conditions inside his factories -- was meeting with his top deputies in Shenzhen, China.
In 2011, The New York Times had begun sending Apple and Foxconn extensive questions about working conditions in factories manufacturing Apple products. The resulting articles in late January detailed problems ranging from excessive overtime and underage workers to sometimes deadly hazards. An explosion in Ms. Pu's Foxconn plant killed four workers.
In January, Apple publicly released names of many of its suppliers for the first time. The company also made the unusual move of joining the Fair Labor Association, one of the largest workplace monitoring groups.
Soon, auditors from that association were inspecting Apple's partners in China, starting with Foxconn. Now, Mr. Gou was learning the results.
Foxconn was still failing to stop illegal overtime, the association's lead inspector told him and his lieutenants, say multiple people with knowledge of the meeting. The company was failing to keep student interns off night shifts. Foxconn had not put sufficient safety policies into practice and had exposed potentially hundreds of thousands of workers to at least 43 violations of Chinese laws and regulations.
But the inspector also turned to the only attending Apple executive, Jeff Williams, senior vice president for operations, saying Apple needed to change as well.
When Mr. Williams, who declined comment for this article, returned to California, changes began. Among them, say people with firsthand knowledge, was hiring roughly 30 professionals into Apple's social responsibility unit in the last year, which tripled that division's size and brought high-profile corporate activists into the company.