By Lee Chyen Yee and James Pomfret

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Working conditions at Foxconn's gargantuan Chinese factories that assemble Apple Inc's slick gadgets have barely improved despite pledges this year to halt labor violations, workers' rights activists and employees said on Thursday.

Foxconn Technology Group, Apple's main global contract manufacturer run by Taiwanese tycoon Terry Gou and employing 1.2 million workers in China, has come under fire in recent years for running massive "sweatshops" to mass produce high-end iPads and iPhones.

Last month, Gou defended his firm's industrial workshops that have helped outmuscle rivals through vast economies of scale and cost savings that have made it the world's largest contract manufacturer.

"What's wrong with sweatshops?" Gou told Chinese workers visiting Taiwan in late April. "We toil hard with blood and sweat, so long as we don't break any laws. I believe in reaping what you sow," he added in videoclip posted on YouTube.

Following a spate of critical reports detailing unsafe factory practices at Foxconn plants that have triggered worker deaths and suicides, Apple this year allowed the U.S.-based Fair Labor Association (FLA) to conduct a high-profile and extensive probe of Foxconn's China factories.

The report, released in March and based on 35,000 worker interviews, unearthed labor violations including extreme work hours and unpaid overtime. As a result, Apple and Foxconn pledged major improvements including cutting workloads, improving safety protocols and upgrading workers' housing and quality of life.

A fresh report released on Thursday by labor watchdog Student & Scholars Against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM), based on visits to several Foxconn factories and 170 worker interviews, found rights violations "remain the norm" including high production targets, inhumane treatment and signs of overall salary cuts.

"The frontline management continue to impose humiliating disciplinary measures on workers," it said.

"The above findings demonstrate that Apple and Foxconn have not turned over a new leaf," the report added.

Like other China-focused labor advocacy groups, Hong Kong-based SACOM has released a number of hard-hitting and prominent reports on Foxconn in recent years.

Foxconn workers staged strikes in April at separate plants in northern and central China, including a group that threatened to collectively jump from a roof over pay and work conditions.

TOO BIG, TOO COMPLICATED

"I haven't seen any real evidence of any significant changes," said Geoffrey Crothall of China Labour Bulletin, another group which monitors Foxconn.

"At the moment they're just tinkering around the edges and doing PR stunts ... I don't think there's a short term fix to the situation at Foxconn. It's too big, it's too complicated."

Crothall added that Foxconn needed to move towards greater dialogue with the workers through more representative unions.

"If they can move towards a more democratic system where the workers have a voice in their pay and conditions ... you'll find a much more content workforce."

Some of the hundreds of thousands of workers now employed in Foxconn's major industrial plants in southern China's dusty Pearl River Delta near Shenzhen, corroborated SACOM's findings.

"The work pressure is still great," said a worker surnamed Wang who has worked at Foxconn's complex in Guanlan making iPhones and other products over the past two years.

"There hasn't been much change. We are still being pushed very hard," he told Reuters by telephone.

Another employee made similar remarks.

The overall salaries of Foxconn workers dropped even though basic pay has increased, as overtime work has been cut, SACOM found.

Some workers also had higher production targets and had to work unpaid overtime after pay hikes.

Foxconn Technology Group said they would work closely with the FLA to improve the working environment of its workers and ensure that they are treated with respect.

"The welfare of our employees is without a doubt our top priority and we are working hard to give our more than one million employees in China a safe and positive working environment," Foxconn Technology Group said in an emailed statement after Reuters forwarded them the SACOM report.

(Additional reporting by Clare Jim in Taipei; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)

Take a look at the gallery below to see some of the most surprising discoveries from an investigation at a Foxconn factory earlier this year.
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  • Handmade Gadgets

    On February 21, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/22/nightline-apple-supplier-foxconn_n_1293393.html?ref=technology" target="_hplink">ABC aired a "Nightline" segment featuring Bill Weir's visit to a Chinese Foxconn factory</a> responsible for making some of Apple's popular devices. During a tour of the factory, Weir says he "expected more robots" but in fact most of the gadgets at Foxconn are made the old-fashioned way: The high tech parts are put together by hand. For example, iPhones are assembled by hand in 141 steps. One iPad takes five days to assemble and passes through 325 sets of hands.

  • Insane Output

    Two shifts of workers toiling in 12 hour shifts can make 300,000 iPad camera modules in one day, not to mention shape sleek iPads out of "raw hunk[s] of aluminum" at a rate of 10,000 per hour. <a href="http://abcnews.go.com/watch/nightline/SH5584743/VD55173552/nightline-221-apples-chinese-factories-exclusive" target="_hplink">Image via Nightline</a>

  • 7 To A Room

    Many workers live at the factory, where they pay $17.50 per month to live 7 to a room in Foxconn dormitories. <a href="http://www.forbes.com/sites/connieguglielmo/2012/02/22/nightline-goes-inside-apple-factories-in-china/" target="_hplink">The average starting salary is $285 per month,</a> and workers must pay for their food. <a href="http://abcnews.go.com/watch/nightline/SH5584743/VD55173552/nightline-221-apples-chinese-factories-exclusive" target="_hplink">Image via Nightline</a>

  • No Free Lunch

    Workers get two hour-long meal breaks during each 12-hour shift. They eat together in a cafeteria where they pay $.70 a meal. This is about a quarter of their hourly wage. <a href="http://abcnews.go.com/watch/nightline/SH5584743/VD55173552/nightline-221-apples-chinese-factories-exclusive" target="_hplink">Image via Nightline</a>

  • Tim Cook Investigated Suicides

    In 2010, after a spate of suicides at Foxconn's Shenzen plant, then COO Tim Cook flew to China to investigate the matter. <a href="http://abcnews.go.com/watch/nightline/SH5584743/VD55173552/nightline-221-apples-chinese-factories-exclusive" target="_hplink">According to Nightline,</a> Cook put together a team of psychiatric experts to examine the issue. It was at that team's suggestion that the infamous nets were installed between the buildings to prevent suicides. There have been 18 worker suicides at Foxconn since 2010. <a href="http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/02/15/us-china-apple-idUSTRE81E1FQ20120215" target="_hplink">According to Reuters' interview with Fair Labor Association president Auret van Heerden, the group's initial findings from its audit of Foxconn</a> suggested that the suicides could have been "a function of monotony, of boredom, of alienation perhaps."

  • Young Workers

    Weir said he was surprised to see how young the workers were. He said many were in their late teens and no one looked like they could be over 30. Many had left their hometowns, oftentimes in the countryside, in order to get jobs at Foxconn. Weir also toured Chengdu and spoke with the relatives of workers who had left for jobs at Foxconn. According to Cult of Mac, <a href="http://www.cultofmac.com/147878/foxconn-employees-say-underage-workers-were-hidden-before-fla-inspection/" target="_hplink">Foxconn may have hidden underage employees</a> when the Fair Labor Association conducted its inspections. While Apple allows for workers as young as sixteen to assemble their products, those eighteen and under are afforded "special protections," <a href="http://www.appleinsider.com/articles/12/02/22/factory_workers_claim_foxconn_hid_under_age_employees_before_fla_inspection.html" target="_hplink">according to Apple Insider.</a> These include not being allowed to perform some tasks and working shorter hours than older workers.

  • Foxconn Exec Wants To Pay More

    When asked how Foxconn would react if Apple suggested doubling workers' pay, Foxconn executive Louis Woo told Weir that the company would welcome a raise for employees. "Why not?" Woo said. "That would be good for the employees and also definitely good for China and good for us."

  • Air Showers

    Workers have to wear static-proof jackets and take "air showers" to make sure the work area remains dust-free. Even one spec of dust could prove ruinous to the iGadgets' delicate innards. <a href="http://abcnews.go.com/watch/nightline/SH5584743/VD55173552/nightline-221-apples-chinese-factories-exclusive" target="_hplink">Image via Nightline</a>

  • WATCH A CLIP FROM THE NIGHTLINE SEGMENT