A UK public service interpreter's lament
Email to the Home Office Central Interpreters' Unit (sent on 19 December 2015)
Dear Sir, or Madam, or Automated Reply,
A triple address as there is little reason to believe that there is any Human Being left in your department.
Human Beings take feedback from other Human Beings into account in their decision-making process. Human Beings learn from their errors.
Human Beings eat, sleep, travel, get tired, get sick, would like to go on holiday and would like to be able to retire when the time comes. They thrive on the occasional encouragement ("Thank you" will do, for starters) or any other acknowledgement of their existence.
Giving the developments in the provision of what used to be rightly called "interpreting services", one can only conclude that Human Beings have abandoned your Ministry.
But I am an optimist: there might still be one or two Human Beings lurking about in an old unemployment-proof cupboard at the Home Office. It is to them that I address this simple request:
COULD YOU PLEASE ENSURE THAT JUSTICE DOESN'T FAIL BECAUSE INTERPRETERS ARE NOT BEING PAID?
As someone with about 40 years of experience in interpreting at all levels, in all disciplines, in 6 different national jurisdictions and a number of international institutions, I was proud of my job and happy doing it, even if it paid less than I could have earned elsewhere. I therefore encouraged many youngsters to take up the profession and to take it seriously. And that was well before their training and professional development was institutionalised. I was one of the co-founders of the Dutch Institute for Court Interpreters, way back in 1988. I am currently the AIIC-UK contact person for Sign Language Interpreters and I am a member of the Legal Experts Advisory Panel of Fair Trials International. I have never sought either financial or honorary recognition for that work. I consider it to be part of my professional duty. But can I afford to continue to give back if no one pays me for my interpreting work?
Interpreting in the Public Sector has never made anyone a millionaire. There may have been commercial intermediaries who were able to clock up that (in)famous 6 digit figure, but I doubt that many of us have been able to make a £100,000 profit in a single tax year.
In the early 1990s, there was a hypocritical attempt by the then Lord Chancellor's Department at involving professional interpreters in the organisation of interpreting services. It didn't take long for the leopard to show its spots. Early in the 2000s saw the first National Agreement. Early in the 2010s we witnessed the ALS/Capita privatisation. Each of these steps brought a further reduction in income and a further lowering of the interpreter's professional standing.
Interpreters had to swallow a huge increase in their overhead costs (security clearance, insurance, compulsory memberships, compulsory CPD, commission to the commercial intermediaries, etc), an equally vast increase in their running costs (travel, subsistence, electronic tools etc) in exchange for... for what? No cancellation fees, no refund of travel fares and daily rates that are a minimal fraction of what we used to earn.
I, for one, could no longer break even in the Public Sector. But the watershed was not just a financial one. It was one of attitude as well. The government, or rather, their civil servants, started to pull figures out of non-existent hats in order to score brownie points for saving the tax payer money. That is demoralising. It is even more demoralising to find that interpreters, when wrongly accused, are denied the right to reply.
And when the Human Right to Language was put up for private grabs, interpreters, the real ones, began to refuse to turn up. In reply, you, the government and their civil servants, redefined 'interpreters' by lowering the qualification criteria even further. You didn't do so officially and openly. You did it by allowing the private contractor to set its own criteria. And then you declined all responsibility by pointing to the "confidential" nature of a tax-payer funded commercial activity. It was a blatant example of Government abandoning its basic duties.
What can I say to today's aspiring interpreters? DON'T!! JUST DON'T!! BECOME AN INTERPRETER.
- You start off with your student debt
- Then you'll incur your set-up debt
- You'll earn £4 per hour worked
- You'll never earn enough to pay for a holiday, medical treatment or a pension.
- You'll need tax credits and social security benefits to keep your family afloat
- You'll be spending more and more time on paper work, thus having fewer and fewer hours for remunerated work
- Occasionally you will be asked whether, as an interpreter, you can also read and write?
- You'll find that more and more people tell you how they think you should be doing your job.
And since you, civil servants, serving the Government, seem to be wholly unaware of the cost of goods and services, here's a short list:
- a plumber costs £75/hour, cash in hand
- a music teacher costs £45+, cash in hand
- a physiotherapist costs £75, cheques are accepted.
- a year EU-wide travel insurance, £130
- a new computer: £600 (every four years)
- 25 hours reformatting/upgrading a computer @... well, what tariff should one apply? One's own unpaid interpreting hours? Or the IT geek, who charges £45/hour (and whom one still has to instruct at length about installing two languages, two alphabets, two keyboards, etc etc)
- a new smart phone, well the sky is the limit, but my first mobile phone lasted 12 years; now I am supposed to replace this gadget every year.
- communication packages, £500 p.a.
- a ticket to the Amphitheatre at the Royal Opera House (a seat I could afford when I was a student) is £65.
- a lawfully obtained DVD, £20+
- a single fare on the London Tube in Zone 1 one costs £ 4,80. More than an interpreter's net hourly income.
And then there is the car without which an interpreter would not be able to get home after a late assignment..... How much???
You, government and their civil servants, have brought my profession into disrepute.
You, the government and its civil servants, are ruthlessly exploiting the whiffs of xenophobia that emanate from our newspapers, radio, television and the social media.
And now you seek to reduce interpreters' income even further.
When interpreters threaten to boycott, you cry "unlawful!" How lawful is the decade long refusal to increase our fees in line with inflation? How lawful is the unilateral reduction of interpreters' fees ? How lawful is an hourly rate that in reality is less than the minimum wage? How lawful is the refusal to pay interpreters' travel time? Please take note of C-266/14, a judgement in the Court of Justice of the European Union. It was handed down on 10 September of this year and is available in English on http://curia.europa.eu/juris/document/document.jsf?docid=167291&doclang=EN.
If you are human, please :
- remember every citizen's human right to language,
- sit down with us, talk with us, not at us,
- listen to us, make sensible use of our experience out in the fields and our knowledge (including what we may have learnt from other countries and organisations that have organised their interpreting requirements without bringing an entire profession down to its knees),
- use your common sense (and stop suggesting that we live on air and water),
- use your compassion (and just imagine how you would feel when no one around you speaks English).
Yes there is waste in the system, but you will not rectify by ignoring us. Just ask us, very nicely, whether we might have a few suggestions for achieving greater efficiency? Of course, as professional advisers, interpreters expect to be remunerated when they contribute their expertise.
Yours, human-ly but dispirited,
Dr. Ellen Ruth Moerman, NGTV, AIIC, MCIoL
Dutch, English, French
Conference and Court Interpreter