Claims about forced labour spark probe at Swarovski

SWAROVSKI, the crystals company, has been accused of profiting from the forced labour of teenage girls living in Austrian care homes in the Sixties.

The Austrian firm, whose products are popular with celebrities ranging from David Beckham to Paris Hilton and Jennifer Lopez to Nicole Kidman, has ordered an urgent, independent inquiry after the allegations ­surfaced in news reports this week.

It has been claimed that youngsters at the now notorious St Martin state-run care home near Swarovski’s plant at Schwaz were paid “next to nothing” for piece work on crystals, which are used in jewellery, fashion accessories and clothing.

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One girl – now aged 61 and identified as Johanna P in a ­report in the Austrian daily Kurier – claimed: “I was given a box with lots of little stones, tiny crystal stones. I had to lay the stones on pre-designed templates.

“We worked from seven or eight in the morning until five or six in the evening. It was ­assembly line work. I do not ­remember getting a penny for my work.”

St Martin homes housed many girls sent there by their parents because they were unmarried teenage mothers.

A former resident identified only as Hermine R said: “It was exploitation of these young mothers. It was made out to be good work but it was piece work.

“You would have expected youngsters like us to have been paid good money but it was all collected by the bosses who ran the place.

“This was exploitation of young girls who at 16 had become mothers and were assigned there by their parents or the state.”

The last names of both women were withheld due to Austrian privacy laws.

The reports stated that between 20 and 25 “nimble ­fingered” girls were employed on the Swarovski assembly line out of the factory and that most of the work for the girls aged ­between 15 and 18 was setting crystals on to straps.

St Martin’s earned notoriety because of its strict regime and the fact that the only “crime” most of its inhabitants had committed was falling pregnant in a strict part of Catholic Austria.

Following the report on Tuesday it emerged that two other Austrian companies – a jam maker called Darbo and a lightbulb manufacturer – also took advantage of the cheap labour, which was arranged though the offices of the local authority before a stop was put to it entirely.

Swaroski spokesman Markus Langes-Swarovski said an independent historian would be appointed to probe the claims. He said: “This has made me very concerned. I know nothing of such charges in connection with Swarovski thus far.

“An independent historian will be entrusted with the search for the facts.”

Swarovski is admired by ­lovers of bling. Former England footballer David Beckham has necklaces, earrings, watches decorated with Swarovski crystals and an MP3 player which is encrusted with 12,000 of them.

Paris Hilton’s cell phone is decked out in Swarovski crystals, while Nicole Kidman appeared at the 2008 Academy Awards wearing a necklace sporting diamonds and Swarovski stones. Jennifer Lopez is so fond of the brand, her white gold wedding ring features its crystals. Katie Price even has a tiara, piano and TV covered in Swarovski.