A January New York Times report detailing conditions at an Apple manufacturing plant in Shenzhen, China, offered a damning assessment of alleged labor violations committed by companies the Cupertino, CA computer giant hires to manufacture its line of products.

The Times report interviewed several former employees at the Shenzhen plant who said workers are often forced to work sixteen hours a day, seven days a week, sometimes standing until their legs swell. To cut costs, managers have forced employees to use hazardous chemicals — including a cleaner used to polish iPad cases — that can cause neurological damage. Conditions have allegedly gotten so bad a rash of suicides has broken out at the plant. The report also described a fire at an Apple factory that killed several workers.

The Shenzhen factory is run by Foxconn Technology, which manufactures popular devices for the tech giant like iPads and iPods. Foxconn also builds devices for Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Nokia and Samsung, among others. It is currently China’s largest exporter, and is responsible for an estimated 40% of the world’s consumer electronics, according to the New York Times report.

“Most people would still be really disturbed if they saw where their iPhone comes from,”?a former Apple employee was quoted in the article.

Humanitarian campaign site Change.org is now circulating an online petition asking Apple to use its influence to implement better working conditions in China. The petition was started by Mark Shields, a Mac enthusiast and member of the “cult of Mac,” a daily site that follows Apple news.

Though Apple was supplied with a summary of the Times report, the company chose not to participate in the story. To quell dissent in wake of the controversy however, it created a “Supplier Responsibility” page on its website along with a statement in which the company insists “that all of our suppliers provide safe working conditions, treat workers with dignity and respect, and use environmentally responsible manufacturing processes.”

Apple also released a complete list of its suppliers, along with the company’s annual report on labor conditions at manufacturing plants it had audited. A January Mashable article analyzing the report noted humanitarian progress at the Apple plants, but concluded that more work needs to be done. The 2012 Apple audit report found 67 facilities used pay deductions as a disciplinary measure, and 108 facilities neglected laws regulating overtime pay.

“The portion of suppliers in compliance with Apple’s regulations on working hours climbed to 38% in 2011 from 32% the year before,” concluded Mashable’s January 13 article. “But a success rate of less than 40% would be considered a failure in, say, Cupertino — especially with the maximum manufacturing work week set by Apple at 60 hours.”

Internally, the response was a different matter. According to a January 30 Cult of Mac article, Apple CEO Tim Cook was “outraged” by the Times report. Cook sent a lengthy email to company employees regarding the matter, where he referred to the Times article as “patently false and offensive,” while promising the company would do everything in its power to ensure working conditions at its plants are safe.

Corporate responsibility consultancy BSR, which works with Apple to develop sustainable business strategies, has labeled the Times report as “inaccurate” and “misleading.” The company has requested “several important inaccuracies” to be corrected in the paper.

Apple isn’t the only company facing a Chinese labor backlash. Media outlets in January reported that 3,000 workers in Shenzhen staged protests amid concerns of compensation at a Sanyo plant.

Apple performs hundreds of audits on its contracted suppliers each year, and gives 90-day warnings to companies that violate its safety or regulatory provisions, according to the New York Times article. Companies that do not fix regulatory flubs can have their contracts terminated.

Apple’s PR had been riding high in the weeks leading up to the New York Times report, due to their recent record-breaking profits. During 2011’s holiday season, Apple earned $1 billion each week. The company announced in January its fourth quarter net income rose 118% to $13 billion. Revenue rose 73% to $46 billion. Compare this with 2010’s net income of $6 billion and $26 billion revenues and it’s clear that the company has not only grown by leaps and bounds: it’s set a new bar for corporate growth. The company now earns more in one quarter than it was worth less than a decade ago.

Regardless of the alleged conditions violations, one former Apple employee posited in the Times report that given Apple’s popularity, some U.S. consumers may turn a blind eye to the report. Apple is simultaneously being criticized for using minerals mined from the war-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“You can either manufacture in comfortable, worker-friendly factories,” he said, or you can “make it better and faster and cheaper ... And right now, customers care more about a new iPhone than working conditions in China.”

In China, Human Costs Are Built Into an iPad