Smurfit Kappa spirited 23 workers out of Venezuela as its factories were seized
Tony Smurfit reveals for the first time the staff-extraction programme launched amid harassment by intelligence agents
Packaging giant Smurfit Kappa spirited 23 employees from crisis-hit Venezuela last year to protect their safety as the country's economy continued to implode and the company's assets there were seized by the government.
Smurfit Kappa CEO Tony Smurfit told the Irish Independent that the employees had been physically threatened by the government.
He said the staff - all Venezuelan nationals - had been moved quickly out of the country by land before borders were closed. They have since been redeployed at other operations owned by the group in the Americas.
"We've taken them out and relocated them into other Americas business."
"We did it very quickly," said Mr Smurfit. "As soon as the government came in we got them out. At that point, the roads were still open."
For a number of years after Venezuela's economy started to collapse, the government there had zeroed in on Smurfit Kappa's operations. Mr Smurfit said last September that agents from Venezuela's military counter-intelligence had been harassing Smurfit Kappa workers in the country.
"We have tried our best to look after as many as we can," said Mr Smurfit of the 1,600 employees the company had in the country, where it's had a presence for almost 70 years. It has continued to provide funding for children who attended a school it supported. "We've various programmes in place for certain people who were physically threatened by the government," he added.
Although Venezuela's economy was being devastated and is marked by hyperinflation, Smurfit Kappa was able to keep manufacturing products at its facilities in Venezuela for export.
It had production plants in Caracas as well as other cities to the west of the capital. It also operated paper mills, a forestry unit, a sales office and a recycling plant in the country.
Its operations in the country were seized by the government last August, with some employees arrested.
Smurfit Kappa said at the time that it had become "impossible" for its Venezuelan unit to manage its affairs properly due to government action.
Mr Smurfit said that as far as he understands, the company's former operations in the country are now operating at only about 3pc capacity.
Smurfit Kappa has deconsolidated its Venezuelan operations from the group and has commenced proceedings with the World Bank's International Disputes unit to seek compensation from the government.
Venezuela remains in a dangerous state of flux. President Nicolas Maduro has remained defiant in the face of efforts by opposition leader Juan Guaido to oust the incumbent.
The US is among the countries that have recognised Mr Guaido as Venezuela's leader.
Mr Smurfit described the situation in the country as "really tragic".
"You've got to hope for change. Something's got to give. One day Venezuela will come back," he said. "We'll hopefully one day go back. But it needs to be under a different government that doesn't threaten life and liberty," added Mr Smurfit.
The loss of control of its Venezuelan assets saw Smurfit Kappa shoulder a €60m write down of its net assets.