Addicts or not, workers don’t deserve public shaming

I am writing this while half cut. I downed a glass of wine at 10 am because three days ago, I was fired under New Zealand’s Hire and Fire at Will Law. It is a policy bought in by The National government, which promised job creation and more flexibility for workers. But all this law has done is compound the growing issues associated with low-waged and precarious work, and allowed employers to believe they can fire you at will, with barely any reason given.

So, in the face of the dawning reality that I will probably spend my life bouncing from one low-waged and precarious job to the next, numbing myself with alcohol feels like a logical — albeit harmful — response.

***

I wrote that paragraph months ago. I can confirm as someone who likes to pretend I am a part-time alcoholic so I can avoid admitting I have a serious problem (just like Jessica Jones) attempting to drink yourself to death in response to losing your job really doesn’t work. Well, it does not work in the long run, anyway. In the short run, it seems like a fantastic idea to numb the overwhelming sense of shame and humiliation that you feel from being told you are unable to hold down a job.

Compounding my deep sense of shame over my addiction to booze (which is directly related to my inability to find a job that pays more than the minimum wage) is the relentless public shaming of low-waged workers by politicians and employers. Last year our ex-Prime Minister John Key called us “drug addled” and “lazy” in a now infamous and widely criticised Radio New Zealand interview. Our new Prime Minister Bill English recently parroted this stance when he called workers “useless”. As if his first statement wasn’t mean enough, he later expanded on this when talking about young beneficiaries. He stated, “Under workplace safety you can’t have people on your premises under the influence of drugs and a lot of our younger people can’t pass that test.”

Under workplace safety laws, workers shouldn’t be forced to keep working when they’re been seriously injured, either. However while working as a chef I’ve suffered hot oil burns to my arms and had to keep going without medical attention. But Bill English only talks to employers and never to workers so he has no idea of the health hazards and issues we face in our workplaces every day. His statement was entirely anecdotal without a stitch of statistical evidence to back up any of these wild accusations. There have been ongoing public attacks on low-waged workers from employers as well. Most recently, Stuff Media interviewed cafe owner Barbara Olsen-Henderson who agreed with English’s comments. Stuff reports:

“Olsen-Henderson voiced her concerns about the normalisation of drug culture in the country, backing Prime Minister Bill English’s comments about the hospitality industry’s struggle to attract and retain drug-free Kiwis”

As someone who is on the ground talking to hospo workers every day, what I can confirm is that overwhelmingly hospo employers are subjecting their staff to poverty wages and coercing them into signing casual contracts which offer no guarantee of reasonable hours or any hours.  — employers do not even have to offer you one hour’s work under these contracts.

It is common in the low waged industry of hospitality for workers to undertake long hours with barely any time to eat or take rest.  I’ve worked this industry for over a decade and I have gotten UTIs (urinary tract infections) because managers forced me to hold my urine for so long because apparently serving customers matters much more than my health. It is the height of humiliation having a manager or boss deny you a toilet break while you desperately stand there trying not to piss yourself.

So, let me boil this down for you: I’ve got more chance of being forced to piss in a cup for a drug test than to be given adequate bathroom and meal breaks as a hospitality employee. What does that tell you?

Yet the wider public’s focus is always on the useless, lazy and drug-addled behaviour of workers, and rarely on the humiliating, degrading and at times outright exploitative behaviour of employers like Olsen-Henderson.

So let’s talk about addiction and what is notably not being said by employers and politicians alike: addiction is a logical response to unemployment or underemployment and the rising precarity in our stagnated work economy. All of this causes restricted choice for workers and causes us to dive well below the poverty line and poverty is depressing. Both addiction and depression often go together and alcohol, pills, pot, and whatever your poison, all can help negate the side effects of poverty like anxiety and loneliness in the short term. Any relief from these isolating and painful feelings seems better (to me) than soberly coping with the overwhelming sense you do not matter, day-in-and-day-out.

Plus, let’s get real; long-term planning isn’t something many low wage earners do, as short-term thinking feels more manageable. Linda Tirado, anti-poverty activist and author, states in her book Hand to Mouth: Being Poor in a Rich World, “Poor people don’t plan long-term. We’ll only get our hearts broken.” Sooner or later you learn long-term plans only lead to more disappointment and hurt so you stop bothering. It isn’t that I, or any of my other friends stuck in poverty and low-waged work, lack ambition (which involves long-term planning) it’s just that we learned over the years that ambition costs more than we could ever afford.

Cheap wine, or whatever substance I use to take the edge off, makes life, at the time, seem more bearable, even if only for a few hours, until the hangover sets in and the shame spiral begins because I know I shouldn’t be drinking. Journalist Laurie Penny said it best, Here is the politically unspeakable truth: life is hard and drugs are fun.”

When I speak out and advocate against the poor work conditions so many of us face and the implications these conditions have on entire generations, both spiritually and emotionally, I am told to “suck it up”. People spit at me that I should not have made “bad life choices,” and then more well-intentioned people assure me “things will get better”. But statements like the last one are meaningless and amount to magical thinking and quite frankly are exhausting to listen to. As far as I can see it isn’t going to “get better” for most of us. Life is only getting much, much harder for the unemployed and underemployed of a generation at the coal face of a Hyper Casualised Work Economy where The Boss Class and welfare case managers decide whether we can eat next week.

When your employer holds your economic survival in their hands it means you are less likely to speak out against workplace injustice or demand your basic entitlements and a living wage. Large sections of workers who lack access to unions in Aotearoa – such as hospitality workers – become compliant labourers, and are coerced into accepting low wages and are forced to accept exploitation and poor work conditions. They often believe they deserve no better. That’s when capitalism wins: When workers truly think, they deserve to live in poverty and subjugation.

The problem is not workers taking drugs or drinking booze on shifts (which is much more likely than us pill popping or doing lines in the toilets). The problem is that we are hardly surviving; we are barely subsisting in a broken economy which produces broken people, doing whatever it takes to keep going within a fatally fractured society that was created, in part, because of dysfunctional governmental policy enforced by neoliberal politicians.

The problem is that what were once considered stepping stone positions in fast food and service is now the only type of work people like me can find. The CTU (Council for Trade Unions) points out that over 30% of our workforce is now subject to insecure work. This means tens of thousands of us have no set start or finish times, no guarantee of hours, and therefore no idea what our paycheques will be one week ‘til the next. Any employer who denies economic security to their workers is denying them a decent life. This is something Bill English and John Key neglect to point out. Full-time and salaried jobs that offer upward progression and more economic security are limited and have been purposely destabilised. The rising precarity in the workplace is now structurally embedded and has been normalised as part of our working lives.

Another problem is that as precarity and insecurity have risen in the workplace, governments have violently ripped gaping holes in social safety nets such as welfare payments which were designed to mitigate the inequality (often wrought by insecure work). These ‘holes’ now feel more like gaping wounds for those of us subject to ongoing funding cuts to state support. As such, workers locked into low-waged work are left with few options other than to work multiple minimum wage jobs to stay afloat.

But no matter how hard you work or how many shit jobs you graft at, we are not given a life jacket and are left to drown below the tsunami of crushing economic deprivation or swim for our  lives against the current. Sometimes I feel like I am caught in a rip and no matter how hard I swim, I can’t get out. Professor of Law Jane Kelsey, writes in her book, The Fire Economy, “People are told not to look to the government for help or protection. Harm thus becomes individualised and the victims can be blamed for their misfortunes.”

Most of the unemployed or underemployed young working class folk I speak with are internalising this blame and are using dangerous and harmful coping strategies to deal with their misfortunes. Addiction is not by any means the only choice in terms of self-harm we can weaponize against ourselves in a bid to cope with the reality that we have no future.

I spoke to 27-year-old Amanda*, who has struggled to maintain employment throughout her working life. Last year she had the Hire and Fire at Will law used against her and after months of looking she finally found a new job at a retail store but one morning her car would not start before work. Amanda told me this triggered a panic attack as she was scared arriving late would result in job loss. Amanda said she “disassociated from the situation,” and the next thing Amanda knew she had sliced open her arm with a kitchen knife, cut through muscle, leaving a 4-5 cm wound.  Amanda ended up missing an entire day’s work which resulted in further anxiety in regards to keeping her job. Amanda told me,

“For someone who already suffers from depression or self-esteem issues, losing a job is an absolutely crushing blow.”

That crushing blow Amanda spoke of is plural, not singular. Since then Amanda was let go from the retail job because she was late a couple of times, and was accused of falsifying her time sheet, something Amanda swears she did not do. Soon after this she was admitted to respite care as she became suicidal after losing her job. Once released, Amanda began the lengthy process of applying for jobs and trying to get welfare to support herself in between.

As an advocate, I went with Amanda to her welfare meeting and witnessed the caseworker blatantly lie to her about her entitlements while actively making up WINZ policy. It took two hours of me demanding to see actual WINZ policy in writing and speaking to the manager of this WINZ branch before we got Amanda the economic support she needed. Her experience is not unique; per Auckland Action Against Poverty (AAAP), nine out of 10 people are being denied their basic entitlements at WINZ.

A few months later she landed a Graphic Design job, but was let go again under the Hire and Fire at Will Law after only two weeks of employment. Amanda was simply told, “[she] wasn’t fast enough.” But the question needs to be asked: When do workers ever work fast enough for their employers? Amanda was given no training and no support in her new role. I asked her how this latest round of unemployment made her feel and she told me,

“It’s at the point now where I’m used to job loss. I’m applying for the same low-waged jobs because there isn’t much else, but it’s not enough to be employed as it’s not stable or secure. So, I’m anticipating that this is a way of life for me now and I am looking at alternative lifestyle options.”

I hear many other examples like Amanda’s on a weekly basis. Her story is a very real example of the personal devastation wrought by governmental policies enforced by politicians who wash their hands of the social and personal pain they have caused. One such example of a politician simply washing their hands clean is ex National MP Ruth Richardson, known as Ruthanasia, who, in 1991, oversaw what was known as ‘The Mother of All Budgets.’ Andrew Dean, author of the book Ruth, Roger and Me: Debts and Legacies, writes,

“In Richardson’s logic, individuals gain more access to opportunity through greater exposure to the free operation of the market. In practice, this meant cutting welfare and creating markets for public goods such as education and healthcare. The cuts were severe: in that 1991 budget the domestic for a single, childless woman was reduced by 17 per cent, the unemployment benefit for single 20-24-year old’s by 20 per cent and the sickness benefit for single 18-24-year old’s by 20 per cent. These beliefs and this budget fundamentally reorganised the way New Zealanders work, study, and live, and the legacies of her tenure as Minister for Finance, without a doubt, are still felt today.”

 

Dean’s premise for his book was that young people are feeling disconnected and enduring discomfort, in part because of such cuts to welfare and other state support.  But as he points out, Richardson rejected his premise when he spoke with her. She said to him “our words of discomfort, loss, and disconnection don’t resonate with me”. But to the thousands of young workers in Aotearoa struggling to stay afloat in this Hyper Casualised Work Economy where state support is shrinking, those feelings of loss and disconnection, as Amanda’s story so clearly illustrates, are being acutely felt by many of us.

The pain we are feeling is directly related to policy which politicians like Ruth Richardson pushed through and which we had no democratic say. Some of us were not even born when polices that now negatively affect us today were passed in parliament. Regardless, now, we must bear the burden of those politicians’ actions and pay for their heartlessness.

And by no means is it just the young suffering social pain because of precarity and sub-human wages, welfare cuts, and shitty governmental policy. I spoke with a 61-year-old man who was working two jobs, one as a groundskeeper at a school during the week, while on the weekend he works at a racecourse where he quite literally shovels horse shit for a measly $16 an hour. With Auckland’s spiralling rental prices, he can’t afford to live on just one full-time income. As the saying goes: “No one should work and be poor at the same time”. Any government that enforces, year after fucking year, a minimum wage policy that does not sit at a living wage is intentionally denying their citizenry economic security and personal dignity. I think it is time that we stop pretending as a society that people can survive on the minimum wage.

The only people who deserve relentless public shaming and calling out are Politicians like Bill English and John Key, who have actively and very publicly put down, bullied, and shamed low-waged workers by using false information and anecdotal stories that don’t reflect universal truth neither for workers in Aotearoa nor globally.

It is employers like Barbara Olsen-Henderson, who publicly shamed a worker with addiction issues, who deserve to be called out and shamed for her behaviour.  Olsen-Henderson stated in the same Stuff article that she would support a worker through rehab if they tested positive and were willing to get help. The worker she fired because he failed a drug test was in a methadone program, which means he obviously had actively sought help and support for his addiction issues. He was just trying to get his life back together. Still, she fired him.

Most bosses are full of shit when they say they care for their workers. They aren’t your friend. Don’t be fooled into believing they are; the truth is they profit hugely off the ongoing exploitation of our labour. Why would they want to share with us and engage in an equal relationship? The economic benefits of them subjecting us to the minimum wage and insecure contracts are greatly to their advantage. We should, as workers, be absolutely speaking out about the injustices we face at work, and we need to continue to disrupt the lazy and harmful narratives spat at us by politicians and employers who use the language of shame to bully us into silence.

* names have been changed

Postscript:

Kia ora all! I am freelancing which means I have no secure income so, I rely on donations from the wider public to keep myself economically afloat. If you like what I have to say and want to support me, you can make a direct contribution via my bank account:

Name: MISS C A KING

Bank Details: 12-3040-0580277-01

Thanks very much for your aroha and time.

 

 

Now we got bad blood: being poor in a rich world

I have this skill, so I am told, of really annoying or even enraging people who hold right-wing views, and in particular young Tories. I recently exercised this skill in my blogpost “In the playground of the rich, wealth flaunting is a sport.” I was told I was a “gutter journalist” by many upset readers and fans of the super affluent who flooded my Facebook to call me names and engage, often, in poverty shaming rhetoric.

All this, merely for daring to talk about “The Fulltimer Society,” a club started by some young men who sell an affluent party lifestyle during a time of great inequality in this country. I also upset and angered friends of Max Key for “checking his privilege” in my piece. Max Key is the son of our millionaire prime minister Mr. John Key.

Even political blogger Cathy “Chop Chop” Odgers (also known “Cactus Cate”) who was involved in smear campaigns against the Serious Freud office and was one of the stars of investigative journalist Nicky Hager’s book, Dirty Politics, stopped by my Facebook page to tell me what she thought of my piece:

cathy odgers

Cathy like so many others is woefully unaware of just how hard it is to “make it” as a writer or in any industry or creative endeavour which adds to and develops culture instead of obliterating it. Especially if like me, you write on or engage in issues around poverty, inequality, and speak about structural racism and sexism. Those topics are not easy sells to fat cat editors who might be able to pay you for your work; in America only 1% of all reporting is focused on poverty. Newsrooms and newspapers have been laying off reporters for a while now, as Barbara Ehrenreich recently wrote for The Guardian:

Once-generous magazines shrank or slashed their freelance budgets; certainly there were no more free lunches.”

I guess, for a  corporate lawyer such as Cathy who specializes in trusts and tax who earns staggering amounts of money for all up working a job that is useless and serves to protect the wealthy, which is why her job is useless? The idea that accessing upward mobility or a better job is often pitted with structural hurdles, is a foreign concept to her? Cathy may as well have said: “poor people should just stop being poor”.

What I found most unsettling and even disturbing was not the name calling or even the threats of violence I received, but how so many young people clawed, like Cathy did, to protect power while at the same time ignoring how power structures serve to continue oppression and the disenfranchisement of people and entire communities.

Max Key stands to inherit millions of dollars as well as beach houses and holiday homes. He also benefits from the structural privilege accorded to his gender, class, and race. But apparently according to those messages he is the victim and I was the bully. I was told I “attacked him.” He is the one suffering “hardship” as I was informed by two of his friends and members of the “Fulltimer Society:”

max key is such a victim

max key is just a nice guy

Actually, it does matter that Max Key is so “under exposed” and utterly removed “from the grind that less fortunate children are exposed to.” It matters when anyone may be able to bring change to serious inequality, poverty, racism, or other such issues of structural social disadvantage but opts instead to ignore them.  

While tens of thousands of people of conscience marched on the 15th of this month all over Aotearoa to speak out against the TPPA–an alliance between corporate interests and governments which would erode our civil liberties and destroy our sovereignty as a country–in the USA a Black Lives Matter protest was happening on the streets of St. Louis. It is important to note there are generally a few BLM protests happening at any given time in America. I followed on the ground updates via Twitter: Linda Tirado, author and anti-poverty activist, Tweeted this image of a BLM protester chalking the following words on the pavement:

blm

When you stay silent on matters of racial injustice that include the targeted killing and what the journalist Kareem Abdul-Jabber calls the “assassination” of unarmed people of colour by police in America. Or the reality that Maori–our first nations people–represent 15% of the population but make up half of Aotearoa’s prison population, as Toby Manhire recently reported for The Guardian, you accept that situation and you consent to this structure. When you refuse to acknowledge there is a growing chasm between the super wealthy and people who are poor then you collude in the construction or the maintenance of that structure. And if the TPPA is passed this chasm will only get bigger.

By not actively speaking out or working against the TPPA, and against racial bias from the street to the legal system and elsewhere, and all such issues of structural inequality, you are saying: it doesn’t matter, and none of it matters. Or worse yet, you blame those who are facing structural equalities for their own circumstances – for example when you condemn and shame people living in poverty instead of the systems which create poverty, this only serves to excuse, reinforce and further entrench oppression and injustice.

Not everyone is a “victim” of the system, no matter what Max Key’s friends believe. Many people from privileged backgrounds benefit–without even thinking about it because they do not have to-–and become the wilful enforcers of systems of oppression.

Eric Garner was a black man who was murdered by police in America for selling untaxed cigarettes. Over and over again he repeated clearly: “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.” These were the last words he would ever speak as police officers held him down while another placed him in an illegal choke-hold, squeezing the breath and life from his body. “I can’t breathe” now rings out during Black Lives Matter protests and uprisings and has, at times, become a trending hashtag on Twitter, opening conversations around race and racism in the USA. The white police officer who put Eric in a chokehold served no time, a grand jury decided not to return an indictment.

However, Daniel Pantaleo who filmed the brutal killing was not so lucky; the police tried to put him behind bars and as Molly Crabapple wrote for Vice, “In December, a grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo, but Orta, his supporters say, has been the target of a police campaign to destroy his life ever since.”  Those who expose injustice and cruelty will nearly always be punished for their bravery to serve as a warning to others.

This is business as usual in the USA. This, we are told, is just how the world works.

Max might be a “nice guy” as so many of his fans and BFFs told me while also indignantly exclaiming “You don’t even know him!” I may not know him personally but, what I do know is this: like so many who benefit from oppressive systems, Max says nothing about the hardships of others. Not a fucking whisper. The NZ Herald recently reported that over 300,000 kids are now living in relative poverty in this country; but sure, it is Max who is suffering the real “hardship” in all of this. Let’s talk about how hard done by he is, shall we, with his fancy swimming pool, beach houses, convertible cars, and blossoming model/DJ career.

So often journalists and those who messaged me and posted on my Facebook to let me know how “mean” I was and call me a bitch or whatever else they could come up with, in turn portray people who benefit the most from the misery and deprivation of others as the victims.

This is a key way in which the powerful maintain their dominance: they portray themselves or others with whom they identify as mere hapless victims who are unable to do anything about the gross inequality we are witnessing in this country and around the world.

What could they do instead? Share their ludicrous sums of money with communities that are in hardship and stop hoarding it. Perhaps they could even use their privileges to benefit others, rather than just themselves and a select few. This is just an idea, for any super rich-ass people who might be reading this. Perhaps they feel their hands are tied.  Anyway the reality is increasingly becoming clearer that you are either rich or you are poor. The myth or story we hear from above though continues to be that this stark economic and social binary is a result of the individual choices we make in our lives. “You get what you work for,” right?

This is just business as usual.  This, we are told, is just how the world works.

Between the petty names and the hypersexualised messages sent to my inbox, it became incredibly clear that many believe rich kids such as Max Key-–who is cultivating a celebrity presence via social media-–and young people who start societies such as “The Fulltimer Society,” are completely off limits. They have special exemption from critique or criticism. I even had one white dude message me in response to what I wrote to let me know he would like to “shove a fucking cactus down my throat,” rounding off by calling me a “cunt,” and in another post called me a “niggah.” My friend who is a writer living in America suggested that it was likely this guy used that word against me because to him black people are the lowest of the low. So, it was a big insult.

All of these reactions made it clear that many people believe the lives of the rich and affluent are “off limits.” Perhaps this even extends to those who worship wealth and play the dandy like some kind of Nick Carraway character from The Great Gatsby; after all, some of the guys who started the “Fulltimer Society” don’t necessarily come from wealthy backgrounds.

However, the lives of the working class and those who are poor are never “off limits.” We don’t get special exemption from name calling and shaming in relation to our “life-styles.” I come from the working class and I am routinely told that I am lazy, no matter how many minimum wage jobs I am working at any given time. If I am fired, for whatever insufficient reasons and from whatever precarious job I am working, and if I need welfare between jobs, I get called a “benefit scrounger” and I am made to feel worthless. Cathy Odgers pointed out that with my “literary talent” I should have managed to land a better job in a higher pay bracket. As if it is that easy!

If you are born into wealth you are likely to get the contacts and thus the networks which come with it regardless of how talented you are. I don’t have that benefit, and most millennials growing up today don’t. Instead of contacts and networking opportunities we are handed austerity and pushed into situations where we are competing with each other for low-paid precarious jobs in a flooded and cut-throat job market: jobs we often do not even want but have to work in order to survive.

There is a reason why The Hunger Games series resonates with so many people. It portrays a futuristic dystopia where young people from the lower classes are selected to battle each other to the death in an annual ritual death match. These “games” are enforced by a heartless totalitarian leader: President Snow who lives in the affluent capital, disconnected from the day-to-day hardships and deprivation his people are forced to endure. The books and movies resonate with so many because young people who come from the real political underclasses often feel they are living in a dystopia ruled by heartless leaders; we live in a structure which is a parallel reality, where we have to battle each other for shit jobs, just to survive. The odds are never in our favour.

happy hunfer games

In Aotearoa we have one Mike Hosking, our most prominent media mongrel and our very own equivalent of Fox News’ Sean Hannity. Both are committed to protecting the super wealthy, especially those such as our millionaire PM John Key, or Donald Trump as if either actually needs defending. Both media mongrels say the most offensive shit about people who are poor, and both have prime time “current affairs” shows. The lives of the poor are rarely off limits, if ever. Mike recently weighed in on changes to child support, asking:

“The cost of a child is the cost of a child. If you can’t afford one, why did you have one? And if you did have one and can’t afford it why are you expecting the rest of us to pay the bill?”

I wonder how many tax deductible business lunches Mike has, had? I guess it is okay if we, as taxpayers foot the bill to subsidise some of his food bill? But parents living in poverty gostruggling to feed their kids well, they shouldn’t have had kids in the first place? Where is the moral distinction between Mike, getting a tax deductible business lunch and a person who is struggling to survive getting a WINZ food grant in New Zealand or food stamps in places like America? Can someone please, tell me?

Should we just give the super affluent a “get out of jail free card”? Must we just allow power to go unchecked and unfettered? After all, this is exactly what some of our most prevalent political pundits do, including Mike Hosking, who himself is a millionaire – he protects his own. He acts as a mere messenger for the right-wing and endlessly defends John Key’s behaviour even when it is outright fucking creepy.

For just one famous example, when Key was found out to have yanked on a waitress’s ponytail repeatedly over several months, even after she had expressed over and over again it was completely unwelcome and was causing her distress, Mike ran to his defence like he always does:

Let’s just face it: We can tell it was sexual harassment in the workplace because if it was a dude with a ponytail John would not have yanked on it. Similarly, from this singular incident we can tell Mike Hoskings serves the powerful and not the disempowered. He is committed to obscuring power, not exposing it. As veteran journalist, John Pilger has stressed for most of his career:

“The media is the invisible government.”

From his endlessly repeated rhetoric we see that Hosking believes power and the elite few who hold it must be vigorously protected at all costs, even if it is at the cost of the vast majority of people living in Aotearoa.

Already we are seeing the rise of third world diseases in this country, attributed to the growing rates of heart-numbing poverty in low socioeconomic communities. More often than not the vulnerable and downtrodden are not protected by our governments, neither those from the right, nor the relatively nominally left of the Labour party. (Seriously, does anyone even know what Labour stands for in this country anymore, other than pandering to the centre-right?) New Zealand gangs are doing more to feed kids in poverty than the National government, who actually voted against the recent “Feed the Kids” bill.

Just typing those words is heart-wrenching and jarring. Our most vulnerable people are not being protected by their own government, nor even having their voices elevated by the vast majority of media tycoons such as Mike or journalists, who are meant to be truth speakers in times of universal deceit.

This then, is business as usual. This, we are told, is just how the world works.

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