Lack of meetings during lockdown leaves EU interpreters facing financial hardship

A furious row has flared over claims that hundreds of freelance interpreters are facing financial hardship by the EU institutions because of the COVID-19 crisis.
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By Martin Banks

05 Jun 2020

About 1,800 interpreters are complaining they are in “financial limbo” because the EU is no longer paying them and they are unable to claim temporary unemployment due to their special tax status.

The problem has arisen because demand from the EU institutions for interpretation has plummeted since the Coronavirus outbreak.

Terry Reintke, a German Greens MEP, has now called for the dispute to be resolved, telling the parliament Magazine, "Interpreters guarantee the EU’s multilingualism and are vital to maintain the work and functionality of the institutions. It is clearly the responsibility of the European Parliament to care about their freelance interpreters as they are not covered by national measures.”


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Her plea comes after more than two months of conflict between the two sides which interpreters say started because of a “unilateral” decision by the EU institutions to “carry out weekly cancellations” of daily contracts.

It means contracts from the last week of May and the first week of June have been cancelled on a “rolling basis.” This, it is claimed, was introduced without prior consultation. The cancelled contracts were the only source of income many freelance interpreters could count on for May, June and July.

They say it has left them facing financial losses that, in some cases, represent up to 100 percent of their income.

"Interpreters guarantee the EU’s multilingualism and are vital to maintain the work and functionality of the institutions. It is clearly the responsibility of the European Parliament to care about their freelance interpreters as they are not covered by national measures” Terry Reintke MEP

Their plight is compounded because most freelance interpreters or accredited Conference Interpreting Agents (ACIs) are not eligible for national income support measures because of their contractual relations with the EU institutions: they pay EU community tax of between 19 and 25 per cent on their daily remuneration and this does not provide them with social security coverage.

Yves Cherbut, an interpreter in Brussels for 30 years, told this website, “This decision basically deprives a large number of ACIs of what would have been their only source of income.”

Zia Papar, who has worked as an interpreter in Brussels for seven years, said, "We know the profession is well paid and this is not a sob story. But there is major uncertainty about if and when we will go back to work. We fear this could cause real hardship."

She said some colleagues were not even eligible for basic unemployment benefit.

The interpreting services of the European parliament and the Commission have offered ‘deferred contracts’ - effectively a loan - to ACIs, to compensate for loss of income.

Their case has been taken up by the Association of Conference Interpreters and the AIIC Professional Delegations to both the Parliament and Commission.

An ACI spokesman said, “The institutions have claimed that they have no legal basis to offer freelance interpreters genuine solidarity. At the same time, they have repeatedly made statements like “solidarity is at the very heart of Europe” and “no one will be left behind”.

“ACIs are asking for what has already been adopted for the millions of European self-employed workers in need: an ad-hoc instrument to provide emergency support until the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is behind us.”

“Freelance interpreters have been associated with the institutions since the very beginning. We are still as indispensable today as then. Interpreters have been loyal to the institutions. They depend on us and will again. Interpreters now depend on the institutions to get us through the summer” Yves Cherbut, an interpreter in Brussels for 30 years

A letter to MEPs from the ACI, dated 27 May, says the offer made to interpreters “is in sharp contradiction to the messages of solidarity sent out by Parliament and the Commission. Social dialogue and trust have been wrecked, as the EU interpreting services have failed to offer a group of highly skilled service providers and regular EU taxpayers anything worthy of the label of true European solidarity.”

MEPs are asked “to step in and request that the Commission come up with an ad-hoc solution for non-refundable financial aid to freelance interpreters working regularly for the EU.”

ACIs cover more than 50 percent of the simultaneous interpretation provided in meetings and conferences organised by the EU (the rest is covered by staff interpreters). There are more than 3,200 accredited interpreters, of which 1,500 work regularly for the EU.

Cherbut said, “Freelance interpreters have been associated with the institutions since the very beginning. We are still as indispensable today as then. Interpreters have been loyal to the institutions. They depend on us and will again. Interpreters now depend on the institutions to get us through the summer.”

Several MEPs from the Socialist, Greens/EFA and GUE groups, meanwhile, have also written to Parliament’s President David Sassoli and its bureau members saying “A solution has to be found.”

In a long statement to this site on Thursday, a Parliament spokesman said, “Due to circumstances, expected demand for interpretation was significantly altered and interpretation needs at meetings could therefore be largely ensured by Parliament’s staff interpreters.

“The EU institutions are conscious of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the freelance interpreters’ community. Parliament is striving for the right balance between efficient and effective financial management and the institution’s social responsibility towards our external employees” European parliament Spokesman

 “Long term contracts were, therefore, cancelled as of 26 May, with 60 days advance notice foreseen in the agreement between the European institutions and the professional association representing ACIs. All contracts until that date were honoured and paid in full.”

The spokesman went on, “The EU institutions are conscious of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the freelance interpreters’ community. Parliament is striving for the right balance between efficient and effective financial management and the institution’s social responsibility towards our external employees.”

“The idea of a social support scheme option was not considered feasible taking into account the legal, budgetary and organisational constraints. Nevertheless, an alternative contract-based mitigating measure is offered to freelance interpreters in order to bridge the months of lower interpretation demand in June and July. “

The commission did not reply to our request for comment but, in a letter dated 21 April to the ACI, EU commissioner Johannes Hahn made a defence of the Commission, saying it faced a "crisis that is unprecedented in the history of the EU."

The official added that the freelance interpreters had been "shielded" in the first months of the crisis and that their contracts had been honoured until the end of May.

Hahn, who is responsible for the budget and administration, goes on to state that this comes "despite a drastic drop" in demand for interpretation services.

“Much of the work we do day-to-day could not happen without the phenomenal work of our interpreters, and I so call on the leadership of the European Parliament to find an adequate solution for those interpreters who – through no fault of their own - find themselves without their incomes" Sean Kelly MEP

Irish EPP MEP Sean Kelly told this site that, "Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, and at a time when we are calling for solidarity between Members States to effectively deal with the economic downturn and leave no citizen behind, we must set the example in the EU institutions and ensure that the same principle applies.”

“Much of the work we do day-to-day could not happen without the phenomenal work of our interpreters, and I so call on the leadership of the European Parliament to find an adequate solution for those interpreters who – through no fault of their own - find themselves without their incomes".

Finnish Greens member Heidi Hautala said, “The freelance interpreters have enabled the European Parliament to carry out its duties for years and years, with great dedication, flexibility and professionalism. Despite their status as non-permanent members of Parliament’s staff they are a long-standing pillar of our work and serve in the European spirit.”

“It is only fair that during these most exceptional times we do our utmost to find solutions. For instance, once the work in the Parliament starts to increase as the lockdown is partially and gradually lifted, I am sure we will be able offer more work to our freelance interpreters. I, for sure, will be glad to invite the Finnish interpreters back in my meetings."

 

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