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Posts Tagged ‘Silicon Valley’

The Blue-Collar Hellscape of the Startup Industry

Tuesday, December 5th, 2017

On November 13, Marcus Vaughn filed a class-action lawsuit against his former employer. Vaughn, who’d worked in the Fremont, California factory for electric automaker Tesla, alleged that the manufacturing plant had become a “hotbed for racist behavior.” Employees and supervisors, he asserted, had routinely lobbed racial epithets at him and his fellow Black colleagues. 

Vaughn said he complained in writing to the company’s human resources department and CEO Elon Musk, but Tesla neglected to investigate his claims. In true tech executive fashion, Musk deflected Vaughn’s misgivings, shifting the blame to the assailed worker. “In fairness, if someone is a jerk to you, but sincerely apologizes, it is important to be thick-skinned and accept that apology,” he wrote in a May email. In late October, according to Vaughn’s suit, he was fired for “not having a positive attitude.”

The news of rancorous working conditions for Tesla employees is merely the latest in a series. Vaughn’s case signals the broader social and physical perils of couching traditional factory models within the frenzied, breakneck tech-startup framework of high demand, long hours and antipathy toward regulation.

Tesla’s Fremont facility has bred a number of allegations of abuse, from discrimination to physical harm. Vaughn’s is at least the third discrimination suit filed this year by Black Tesla workers alleging racism. A former third-party contracted factory worker, Jorge Ferro, has taken legal action to combat alleged homophobic harassment. The cruelty wasn’t strictly verbal: Not long before, in an ostensibly unrelated but similarly alarming turn of events, reports surfaced that production-floor employees sustained such work-related maladies as loss of muscle strength, fainting and herniated discs.

In response to Ferro’s allegations, Tesla told In These Times that it “takes any and every form of discrimination or harassment extremely seriously.” But the company denied responsibility on the grounds that Ferro was contractor, not an employee.

Tesla’s factory conditions evoke those reported at another Silicon Valley darling: Blue Apron. In the fall of 2016, BuzzFeed detailed the consequences of the lax hiring practices and safety standards governing the food-delivery company’s Richmond, Calif. warehouse. Employees reported pain and numbness from the frigid indoor temperatures and injuries from warehouse equipment. Many filed police reports stating co-workers had punched, choked, bitten or groped them, amid threats of violence with knives, guns and bombs.

At the time of these complaints, both companies had fully ingratiated themselves to investors. Tesla’s reported worth is so astronomical even the most technocratic corporate mediaand Musk himselfquestion it. Blue Apron, which went public this year, snagged a $2 billion valuation in 2015. (Blue Apron has since seen a marked decline, a development that maybe have been spurred by BuzzFeed’s report.) As a result, both companies have habitually placed escalating pressure upon their employees to generate product, their executives eyeing the potential profits.

Predictably, these companies’ legal compliance appears to have fallen to the wayside in the name of expediency. Tesla and Blue Apron factory employees have found themselves working 12hour shifts, in some cases more than five days a week. Tesla employee Jose Moran wrote of “excessive mandatory overtime” and “a constant push to work faster to meet production goals.”

In 2015, Blue Apron appeared to violate a litany of OSHA regulations, ranging from wiring to chemical storage. It also hired local temporary workers via third-party staffing agencies—likely to circumvent the costs of such benefits as health insurance. As BuzzFeed noted, these staffing agencies independently screened candidates in lieu of internal background checks. Compounding the problem, the company expected temps to operate machinery they were unqualified to handle. (Blue Apron has since euphemized its OSHA violations and claimed to have axed these staffing agencies. The company has not responded to requests for comment.)

Aggravating an already fraught atmosphere, the companies appear to have used punitive tactics to coerce laborers into greater productivity. While some Tesla workers are placed in lower-paying “light duty” programs after reporting their injuries, others are chided for them. One production employee, Alan Ochoa, relayed to the Guardian a quote from his manager in response to his pain complaint: “We all hurt. You can’t man up?”

Equally culpable is e-commerce goliath Amazon. Bloomberg reported that the company mounts flat-screen televisions in its fulfillment centers to display anti-theft propaganda relating the stories of warehouse workers terminated for stealing on the job. (This offers a blue-collar complement to the 2016 New York Times exposé on its draconian treatment of office employees.) According to a former employee, managers upbraid workers who fail to pack 120 items per hour, heightening their quotas and, in some cases, requiring them to work an extra day. Those who don’t accept overtime shifts, meanwhile, lose vacation time.

Amazon told In These Times, “We support people who are not performing to the levels expected with dedicated coaching to help them improve.”

It’s no wonder, then, that Blue Apron and Amazon warehouses generate high turnover. In fact, this is likely by design. By creating working conditions that not only extract vast amounts of labor at low costs, but also drive workers away, tech companies can skirt the obligation to reward employees with raises and promotions. A companion to the profit-mongering schemes of Uber, Lyft and now Amazon (through its Amazon Flex delivery vertical) to classify workers as contractors, this form of labor arbitrage ensures that owners of capital avoid the risk of losing wealth to hourly workers—a class they deem thoroughly disposable.

Tesla has caused similar workforce tumult, firing employees for the foggy offense of underperformance. Of the hundreds of terminated employees from both its Palo Alto, Calif. headquarters and its Fremont facility, many were union sympathizers who’d been in talks with the United Auto Workers. The move has thus aroused suspicions that the company sought to purge dissidents—a reflection of the anti-union posture that has characterized Silicon Valley for decades.

If the near-ubiquity of factory and warehouse worker exploitation in the news cycle is any indication, tech capitalists—through their regulatory negligence and toothless “solutions”—have fostered a culture of barbarism. Low-wage laborers have little to no recourse: They’re either left to endure imminent social and physical harm, or, should they seek protections against the anguish they’ve borne, are stripped of their livelihood.

The blue-collar hellscape Tesla, Blue Apron and Amazon have wrought is what laissez-faire, startup-styled late capitalism looks like. At a time of such disregard for the fundamental health, safety and humanity of low-tier workers, the tech-executive class has proven nothing is sacred—except, of course, the urge to scale.

This article was originally published at In These Times on November 29, 2017. Reprinted with permission.

 About the Author: Julianne Tveten writes about the intersection of the technology industry and socioeconomic issues. Her work has appeared in Current Affairs, The Outline, Motherboard, and Hazlitt, among others.

Apple Store Employees Are Diverse, But Their Silicon Valley Co-Workers Lag Behind

Friday, August 5th, 2016

Lauren WilliamsApple is Silicon Valley’s most diverse tech giant. According to the company’s mint diversity and inclusion report released Wednesday, Apple has been able to significantly increase its number of female and minority employees since 2014.

Women make up 32 percent of Apple’s employees worldwide, up two points from 2014. Apple’s report also boasts that racial and ethnic minorities consisted of 54 percent of new hires in the United States since June 2015. But those boosts largely come from hires in Apple’s retail stores — not tech workers in Cupertino, California.

Racial and gender diversity in retail has jumped since 2014. Seventeen percent of Apple store employees are Hispanic or Latino and 12 percent are black — a 4 point and 2 point increase respectively. Asians have much lower representation in retail stores at 7 percent, but make up 27 percent of the company’s tech employees.

Apple diversity 2016

CREDIT: APPLE

The percentage of white employees is steady at 59 percent, which could indicate that even as Apple continued to grow its retail workforce, diversity was a priority in the hiring process. Women still only make up 32 percent of their retail employees, but that is a slight improvement over two years ago, when they were just 30 percent of their staff.

The retail industry is more inherently diverse than tech industry at large, and Apple’s numbers are on par with that: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women hold 31 percent of jobs in electronic stores, while blacks make up 14 percent, Asians represent 9 percent, and Hispanics hold 19 percent of those jobs. But Apple is also one of the only tech companies with any significant retail presence, meaning their overall diversity numbers benefit in ways that most other Silicon Valley giants do not. Apple employs more than 30,000 retail employees in the U.S., where the company has more than 250 stores, double the number of their next closest competitor Microsoft.

Apple diversity 2016

CREDIT: APPLE

On the tech side, gender diversity has improved by 3 percentage points since 2014, with 23 percent of tech jobs filled by women. The number of Asian workers has ticked up 4 points since 2014, with the number of blacks increasing 2 points. Hispanics in tech saw a marginal increase from 6 percent in 2014 to 7 percent in 2016.

The transformation of Apple’s workforce from a white, male dominated company to one that is more reflective of society as a whole is a slow process, but Apple’s report is heartening. CEO Tim Cook has been outspoken and proactive about the tech industry’s need for diversity of all kinds, including religion, sexual orientation and gender identity. In fact, some of the company’s most visible — and perhaps most laudable — improvements have been in its outward representation.

Apple has been more inclusive during their signature product launches, putting more women and people of color on stage during big events. Apple Music VP and head of global consumer marketing Bozoma Saint John was the highlight at the company’s annual Worldwide Developers Conference in June. The native Ghanaian, who joined Apple in 2014, is the brain behind Apple Music’s hit 2015 Emmy awards commercial featuring black entertainers Mary J. Blige, Taraji P. Henson, and Kerry Washington casually singing and dancing to tunes.

Incremental changes, such as increasing recruitment from historically black colleges and universities, are noteworthy. But while Apple can’t change Silicon Valley’s make-up in a year, the company is working to change the face of the brand. Those changes will hopefully reverberate, not only within Apple’s tech sector, but the industry overall.

This post originally appeared at Thinkprogress.org on August 4, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Lauren C. Williams is the tech reporter for ThinkProgress. She writes about the intersection of technology, culture, civil liberties, and policy. In her past lives, Lauren wrote about health care, crime, and dabbled in politics. She is a native Washingtonian with a master’s in journalism from the University of Maryland and a bachelor’s of science in dietetics from the University of Delaware.

Important Study Looks At Silicon Valley’s “Invisible” Low Wage Workers

Friday, April 1st, 2016

Dave Johnson“We knew the tech industry was booming, but we weren’t seeing that translate into an abundance of jobs for our communities – until we looked at the low-wage jobs in contracting industries. Those are growing fast, just like tech profits are. It’s no wonder that one in three working households in Silicon Valley can’t make ends meet when these growing industries pay wages that barely cover rent.”
– Derecka Mehrens, Executive Director of Working Partnerships, USA.

Working Partnerships USA and Silicon Valley Rising released a report Wednesday, Tech’s Invisible Workforce, that looks at the contract industry workers at Silicon Valley’s “booming” tech companies.

In the last two-and-a-half decades, the number of Silicon Valley “second-class” jobs in potential contract industries has grown three times faster than overall Silicon Valley employment. These contractors and subcontractors jobs are disproportionately filled by Black and Latino workers compared to direct tech employees, and these workers receive much lower wages. As a result, Silicon Valley’s inequality and occupation segregation is amplified, especially among people of color.

The report finds that direct tech employees earn $113,300. Contractor and subcontractor tech industry workers – workers employed indirectly rather than treated as legitimate employees – are paid much less. White-collar workers in contract industries average $53,200 and blue-collar workers in contract industries average $19,900.

Along with this wage differential, as income drops the proportion of the workforce that is comprised of Black and Latino workers goes up. According to the report, Black or Latino workers make up, on average:

? 10 percent of Silicon Valley’s direct tech workforce.
? An estimated 26 percent of the white-collar contract industry workforce.
? An estimated 58 percent of the blue-collar contract industry workforce.

Lydia DePillis writes about this report at The Washington Post’s Wonkblog, in “What we know about the people who clean the floors in Silicon Valley,”

Silicon Valley companies have gotten a lot of heat in recent years for failing to recruit people black and Hispanic people into their ranks. But if you factor in contractors and others whose jobs bring them inside those companies, the industry appears bit more inclusive — just perhaps not in the way one might hope.

At one time in history, the janitors, bus drivers, food service workers, and security guards who staff corporate campuses might have been employed directly by the businesses where they cooked lunches and cleaned floors. That’s become less and less true in recent decades, according to a new analysis of labor data by researchers at the University of California – Santa Cruz — especially in Silicon Valley.

The Road to Responsible Contracting

The report concludes with a section on how companies could contract out jobs responsibly.

Silicon Valley Rising calls on our region’s leading businesses to commit to the following principles:

Responsibility: Ensure that their subcontracted workers are paid a livable wage, receive equitable benefits, have the right to a voice at work without fear of discrimination or retaliation, do not suffer mass layoffs when contracts change hands, and are protected from misclassification and other forms of wage theft.

Transparency: Release public data on their subcontracted workforces, including diversity, pay, and benefit data for each subcontractor.

Inclusion: Invest in building a community where janitors, security officers, cafeteria workers, teachers, nurses, firefighters and other non-tech workers can afford to live. Support access to full-time work, affordable housing, an accessible, world-class public transit system, and high-quality education for low-wage workers and their children.

Opportunity: Work with advocates to explore new approaches to create education and career pathways for contract workers and their families to move into core tech jobs.

The technology industry faces a clear choice. It can continue the status quo of exclusive jobs and exclusionary growth, widening the existing racial, gender and income gaps and accelerating the race to the bottom. Or it can wield its enormous economic influence combined with its capacity for innovative solutions to become a true global pioneer – to not just disrupt markets and technology, but to disrupt inequality.

Click to read the report, Tech’s Invisible Workforce.

See Also

Campaign for America’s Future has been covering Silicon Valley Rising’s fight to improve conditions for this “invisible” workforce.

The Silicon Valley Rising launch: “Silicon Valley Rising Fights for Worker Justice

The fight: “Silicon Valley Rising Fights To Give Part-Timers “Opportunity to Work”

Related: “Tax Scams, Google Buses Mean Silicon Valley Is #StuckInTraffic

This blog originally appeared at ourfuture.org on March 30, 2016.  Reprinted with permission.

Dave Johnson has more than 20 years of technology industry experience. His earlier career included technical positions, including video game design at Atari and Imagic. He was a pioneer in design and development of productivity and educational applications of personal computers. More recently he helped co-found a company developing desktop systems to validate carbon trading in the US.

U.S. To Increase Worker Protection From Deadly Silica Dust for First Time in More Than 40 Years

Friday, December 18th, 2015

elizabeth grossmanFor the first time in 45 years, the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) is poised to increase safety standards for worker exposure to the silica dust that can cause deadly and incurable lung disease. A rule that would cut in half the amount of silica dust to which most workers could be exposed—and limit levels further for construction and maritime workers—is expected to be finalized in February.

The industries that must comply with the new rule hoped to derail the new standard, including with an amendment to the 2016 federal spending bill that would have prevented any spending to implement the new rules and required more study of silica’s health effects. While in the bill up to the eleventh hour, this rider has been dropped from the budget released late Tuesday that is expected to be voted on later this week.

According to OSHA, silica exposure is a serious threat to nearly 2 million U.S. workers, including more than 100,000 whose jobs involve stone cutting, rock drilling and blasting and foundry work. Workers installing and manufacturing countertops are also at risk, along with those at hydraulic fracturing—or fracking—sites where industrial sand is used in oil and gas extraction and has been found to expose workers excessively. OSHA estimates that the new safety limits will save nearly 700 lives and prevent 1,600 new cases of silicosis each year. OSHA also estimates that when fully implemented, the rule would result in annual financial benefits of $2.8 to $4.7 billion, benefits that far exceed the rule’s annual costs.

“It’s often been said it’s a disease that’s been known since antiquity. The fact that silica causes cancer is more recent information,” Mike Wright, United Steelworkers director of health and safety, tells In These Times. “There’s no question the new standard would save lives. The longer it takes to get into place, the more people are exposed,” says Wright.

The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer has considered crystalline silica—particles small enough to inhale—a human lung carcinogen since 1997. The U.S. National Toxicology Program’s Report on Carcinogens classified respirable silica as a known human carcinogen in 2000. In addition to lung cancer, inhaled silica dust can cause silicosis, a serious, incurable and potentially fatal lung disease. In the lungs, silica dust can scar lung tissue and reduce lungs’ ability to process oxygen and increase susceptibility to other lung diseases, including tuberculosis.

OSHA’s existing silica standard, what’s known as a permissible exposure level, has not been updated since the agency was established. The Department of Labor’s concern about these exposures goes back to the 1930s when Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins sounded the alarm about silicosis’ toll on American workers. The new rule, which would cut most workers’ permissible exposure levels to 50 micrograms per cubic meter over the course of an 8-hour workday from the currently allowed 100, was proposed in 2013. It followed reviews begun in 2003 by both the Department of Labor and Small Business Administration. Now, after public comment periods and meetings with industry and labor groups, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is ready to finalize the rule.

Blocking the new standard?

Despite this long history, support from the Department of Labor and research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) showing ongoing adverse affects of silica, industry groups mounted vigorous opposition to the new safety standard. An amendment or rider to what’s known as the omnibus spending bill—the legislation that will fund the federal government’s 2016 budget—was introduced by Senator John Hoeven (R-North Dakota). (North Dakota is among the states with the most fracking sites.) It would have stopped the Department of Labor from spending any money to implement the new silica rule and, among other measures, called for a new study by the National Academy of Sciences to justify the reduced exposure level.

“The Occupational Health and Safety Administration’s (OSHA’s) proposal to reduce the current exposure limit is not supported by sound science and will create a tremendous financial burden for many industrial sectors,” said the National Stone, Sand and Gravel Association in a statement posted to its website.

The association is among the industry groups and companies that have lobbied the White House on this issue, trying to persuade the administration that existing regulations are sufficient and that more stringent standards would be burdensome to business. Between March 2011 and 2014, OMB meeting records show 11 meetings about occupational exposure to crystalline silica. All but one were with industry groups.

In an emailed statement, Sen. Hoeven’s office explained that the amendment “would not only ensure that the latest science is used by OSHA, but also that the agency conducts a long-overdue study of the impact of current silica regulations on small businesses,” noting that the most recent Small Business Administration report on silica was completed in 2003 and that silica-related deaths dropped 93 percent between 1968 and 2007.

But as NIOSH itself has written:

There are no surveillance data in the U.S. that permit us to estimate accurately the number of individuals with silicosis. The true extent of the problem is probably greater than indicated by available data. Undercounting of silicosis occurs because there are no national medical monitoring surveillance programs, and there can be a failure to diagnose silicosis or record it as a cause of death on a death certificate. Silicosis often presents long after workers have left causative jobs. Such cases may not be detected in Bureau of Labor statistics as occupational disease and will not be detected if disease presents after retirement.

“We’re talking about people’s lives,” says Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists Center for Science and Democracy. “What gets lost in so many of these discussions is that this is fundamentally about public health and safety protections that are genuinely in the public interest. They’re not going to be done by businesses on their own,” says Rosenberg.

“If you wait for this kind of evidence people will be dead,” he noted of one of the rider’s requirements.

But, says National Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health acting executive director Jessica Martinez, striking a note of hope via email, “Given the overwhelming evidence about the hazards of silica, we are hopeful that the final budget agreed to by the White House and Congress will not interfere with OSHA’s scientifically sound, economically practical new silica standard.” Her wish was realized in the budget bill agreement reached last night that dropped the rider.

Additional riders’ impact on public and occupational health

But this is not the only amendment attached to the budget bill that would affect public and occupational health. Among the riders that would prevent environmental protections from being advanced is one that could keep scientists who receive federal research grants from serving on Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) science advisory boards. This could, for example, exclude scientists whose research is funded by the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health. Another budget provision could add additional delays to regulation of harmful chemicals by requiring EPA to replicate science studies submitted as part of chemical assessments.

Both of these riders essentially replicate bills introduced last year by House Republicans that the OMB recommended the president veto. While on the surface both sound reasonable, close reading shows they could easily result in achieving the opposite of what they claim to. Versions of both appear to remain in the budget bill that will go to the full House for a vote.

“The SAB rider,” explains UCS’s Rosenberg, “tips the scale even further in the direction of industry by twisting the concept of conflict of interest on its head. It says that academics who get money from government grants have a conflict but industry-supported scientists don’t.”

And as the Natural Resources Defense Council senior attorney Daniel Rosenberg explains further via email, “The rider attempts to hold EPA hostage by halting all Science Advisory Board activities until EPA changes its policies”—and has these changes vetted by a Government Accountability Office report. Both riders could affect all future chemical regulation and how federal occupational protection standards are set.

So what’s likely to happen?

“We’re all hoping for a ‘clean’ budget bill,” said Wright earlier this week. The bill that emerged Tuesday night is not exactly ‘clean,’ and how these riders play out, assuming the bill passes in the form currently available, remains to be seen. According to The Hill, the House is expected to pass an additional stop-gap spending measure today, to keep the government funded through December 22nd with a vote on the $1.1 trillion budget bill anticipated on Friday of this week.

But when it comes to silica, “Millions of workers will breathe easier,” says Martinez, “if this important new rule goes into effect as planned this coming February.”

About the Author: The author’s name is Elizabeth Grossman. Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Yale e360, Environmental Health Perspectives, Mother Jones, Ensia, Time, Civil Eats, The Guardian, The Washington Post, Salon and The Nation.

This blog was originally posted on In These Times on December 16, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

Silicon Valley Firm’s Wage Theft: ‘Worse Than Sweatshops’

Sunday, November 2nd, 2014

alex-lubben[1]“This is worse than anything I ever saw in any of those Los Angeles sweatshops,” said Michael Eastwood, a Los Angeles Department of Labor assistant district director, reflecting on a Silicon Valley firm’s failure to pay minimum wage to eight Indian employees.

The workers, who were flown in from the company’s Bangalore offices, worked up to 122 hours a week helping Electronics for Imaging, Inc. (EFI) move its headquarters from Foster City to Fremont, CA. They were granted no overtime for their work, and were paid the equivalent of $1.21 an hour—well below California’s $8 per hour minimum wage. While working in the U.S., they continued to be paid in rupees.

An anonymous tip led the Department of Labor to investigate. The result: EFI will pay more than $40,000 in back pay to the workers, as well as a $3,500 fine.

While not one of Silicon Valley’s high-profile giants, Electronics for Imaging certainly has the cash to pay everyone a fair wage. They brought in $728 million in revenue last year and offered their CEO, Guy Gecht, a pay package valued at around $6 million.

Beverly Rubin, EFI’s vice president of HR shared services, provided the following statement to CNBC:

“To help our local IT team with a complex move of our Bay Area facility and data center, we brought a few of our IT employees from India for a short assignment in the US. … During this assignment they continued to be paid their regular pay in India, as well as a special bonus for their efforts on this project. During this process we unintentionally overlooked laws that require even foreign employees to be paid based on local US standards. When this was brought to our attention, we cooperated fully with the Department of Labor, and did not hesitate to correct our mistake and to make our Indian colleagues whole based on US laws, including for all overtime worked. We have also taken steps to ensure that this type of administrative error does not reoccur.”

In other words, they didn’t realize that foreign employees had to be paid the minimum wage of the country in which they were temporarily working — a poor excuse that neither qualifies as an apology nor indicates that EFI has any intention to stop exploiting its outsourced labor.

Given the incredibly under-resourced government agencies tasked with monitoring employers who violate labor law, the likelihood that companies will be caught is fairly low. And even if they are caught, companies like EFI are only risking miniscule fines—in the case of these Indian workers, less than $500 per worker.

So why wouldn’t companies take a gamble on paying workers so far below the minimum wage?

The EFI story seems to be representative rather than exceptional. While profits for domestic tech workers continue to skyrocket (with the exception, of course, of those workers involved in the tech-service industry), the laborers that tech hires abroad are seeing neither the pay nor the cushy work environments that distinguish their U.S. counterparts.

Adrian Chen reported for WIRED last week on the content moderation industry, an invisible workforce of up to 100,000 that operates primarily in Southeast Asia. These workers are responsible for sifting through the Internet’s ugliest corners to ensure social media users don’t come across graphic content. They spend their days examining videos and images of everything from beheadings to bestiality.

“It’s like PTSD,” one of the workers told Chen. “How would you feel watching pornography for eight hours a day, every day? How long can you take that?”

This blog originally appeared on Inthesetimes.com on October 30, 2014. Reprinted with permission. http://inthesetimes.com/working/entry/17302/silicon_valley_wage_theft_worse_than_sweatshops.

About the author: Alex Lubben is the Deputy published of InTheseTimes.

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