Home Office interpreters threaten boycott over pay cut
Immigration services could be disrupted if mass action by up to 2,000 interpreters goes ahead in January.
The system for processing immigration claims across the country is set to grind to a halt in the new year if a threatened mass boycott by Home Office interpreters goes ahead.
The looming action in protest at pay cuts is the first time the estimated 2,000 interpreters have threatened to stop work. The organisers of a fair pay campaign – who are running it anonymously for fear of reprisals by the Home Office – say that so far they have received solid support from several hundred interpreters. A meeting with Home Office bosses has been scheduled for 11am on Monday to discuss their concerns.
The problems began when interpreters received an email on 20 November from the Home Office central interpreters unit in Liverpool informing them that a pay cut would be introduced from 1 January. Interpreters receive £16 an hour on weekdays and slightly more at the weekend. But the first hour’s work is paid at an enhanced rate to recognise the time and cost of travelling to appointments. That first-hour rate is being cut from £48 to £32 on weekdays and from £72 to £46 at weekends.
Interpreters are expected to travel up to three hours each way without extra payments from the Home Office. They attend meetings between asylum seekers and others interacting with immigration officials, and translate interview questions and answers face to face. The pay cuts will apply to various areas of the Home Office’s work, including UK Visas and Immigration, Border Force, Immigration Enforcement and HM Passport Office.
The interpreters say they have not had a pay rise since at least 2002, so in real terms have already taken a sizeable cut. But this is the first time the Home Office has proposed lowering their wages.
Home Office interpreters are highly trained and have to go through counter-terrorism security clearance, meaning it will not be easy to substitute other interpreters at short notice if the boycott takes effect. The plan is to start the boycott on 1 January and to follow it with a series of walkouts after that.
“There is no strike planned because, as freelancers, we cannot legally do so. We may, however, choose not to accept assignments and that is what the boycott will consist of,” said one of the interpreters organising the action.
“At the moment, the Home Office needs interpreters more than we need them. They do not have any other system currently in place to substitute our services other than for telephone interpreting, which they can outsource to thebigword [an online firm]. They know that if we boycott even for a day, that will cause major disruptions to their business.”
The interpreters have written to the Home Office to express their dismay at the pay cut. “This decision came out of the blue; there had been no consultation nor any forewarning of a reduction in our fees,” the letter says. “The fees paid to us have remained unchanged since at least 2002, when the current rates came into effect, whilst being eroded by 3.5% annually due to inflation.
“In view of this, any further reductions are totally unacceptable. Instead … the Home Office should do the right thing and seriously consider increasing the rates of payment to account for the effects of inflation, just as the Home Office has done with their staff’s salaries for the last 12 years, other than three of them.”
The organisers of the campaign have complained that they were not consulted over the changes, but Home Office officials say consultation was not required before the changes were made, in line with the terms of the interpreters’ contract.
Some interpreters have expressed concern about being blacklisted by the Home Office if they raise concerns about pay cuts. But the organisers of the protest say they have received assurances from the central interpreting unit in Liverpool that raising concerns about pay will have no bearing on the number of bookings interpreters receive from the department.
Another interpreter, who also did not want to be named, said: “The Home Office cannot function without us. They will not be able to process any immigration claims if we go ahead with our boycott.”
She said the interpreters were very loyal to the Home Office but often were not treated well. In some centres they are not allowed to use the same toilets as Home Office staff, she said.
“Sometimes we are looked down on. This pay reduction is a huge insult and the time has come to protest,” she added.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We keep our costs under constant review to ensure the contractors we use offer the best value for money for the taxpayer. As part of this, we have considered the rates at which interpreters are paid and have made some changes, which are effective from 1 January.
“This information was shared with contractors several weeks ago. We are aware some interpreters have raised concerns about this and we have met with them to discuss why the changes are necessary.”