How hundreds of Finnish Sign Language interpreters lost their jobs overnight.

By NUBSLI | Published on 5 October 2017

Last updated on April 5th, 2019 at 6:01 pm

Related: Finland UNCRPD


This Nub article was amended after it was brought to our attention there were several inaccuracies in the original:

  • The original article failed to acknowledge the role of Deaf activists who initiated the Stop Kela movement. It was Deaf customers of Kela who started the #stopKela hashtag, created the Stop Kela website and are arranging protests. You can read more on the campaign by visiting their website.
  • The number of Finnish Sign Language interpreters currently on Kela’s list – 850 – was inaccurate. This number represents every time an interpreter is registered (for example, an interpreter who works as a FinSL interpreter as well as a DeafBlind interpreter will be entered twice), therefore the actual number is much lower. Kela has announced that in the tendering process they were offered approximately 670 FinSL interpreters and retained 460, meaning approximately 200 interpreters were cut from the list.
  • The original article stated “agencies and individual interpreters would be ranked in terms of ‘quality’ and ‘value for money’”. In fact, the tendering process was ‘50% price’ and ‘50% quality’ – where quality was calculated as the number of interpreter working years and the level of one’s education. Therefore, although ‘quality’ was taken as a value, the simple measurable definition failed to encompass the myriad of specialist skills individual interpreters bring to their assignments.

The amended article is below.

Those of us with left-leaning sensibilities often gaze over to the Nordic and Scandi countries wistfully; with their Baby Boxes and gender-neutral nurseries they seem to be blazing the way forward for progressive politics and inclusivity. That’s why the Finnish Government’s decision to almost halve the amount of Sign Language interpreters comes as such a shock.

Sign Language interpreter provision in Finland

First, some background knowledge about Finnish Sign Language interpreting provision. Each person or organisation is allotted a certain number of interpreted hours: interpreters either work as independent freelancers or staff interpreters within an agency.

All bookings are made through the Finnish Social Insurance Institution responsible for sign language interpreter service – Kela – who hold a list of every Sign Language interpreter (Deaf, hearing, FinSL, FsSL, International etc) in Finland. When a booking comes in Kela run down the list and book the first available interpreter with the necessary skill set. Currently, there are approximately 670 Sign Language interpreters on Kela’s list.

Finnish government cuts the number of interpreters

Earlier this year the Finnish Government, through Kela, announced that in a bid to save money they would be limiting the number of interpreters listed. Agencies and individual interpreters would be ranked in terms of “price” and “value”. Value was to be judged by calculating the number of working years and the level of interpreter education. Once ordered, the list would be cut off at a certain point with those towards the bottom of the list out of a job.

Kela made the announcement of who had been successful on Wednesday 20 September. The problem with Kela’s criteria soon became clear: by taking such a simplistic view of what accounted for ‘quality’ and contrasting that directly with ‘price’, Kela had lost interpreters with specialist skills necessary to meet the needs of their customers.

Hundreds of interpreters will lose their jobs when the changes come in to practice in January 2018.

 The irony of this coming during the International Week of the Deaf was not lost on people, with Debra Russel (the president of WASLI) mentioning it during a video WASLI and WFD released following the news.

[you can access the subtitles in English by selecting: settings>subtitles>auto translate>English]


A Finnish colleague told NUBSLI:

“The FAD and other organisations representing clients or interpreters/agencies have offered their expertise over and over again in order to work together with Kela so that costs could be managed and better quality service provided. Kela has refused this cooperation. In their announcements they state that all organisations have been heard but the true needs and concerns have not really been understood or listened to. For the new contract period (2 years + 2 optional years) Kela is introducing a new system where Deaf clients can create lists of preferred interpreters for different situations (eg. Work, hobby..) but if your preferred interpreters are cut off the list because of the bidding process, the clients needs are not really met again. Many clients have expressed their disappointment when hearing that favourite terps have been cut out.
Kela doesn’t realise that the diverse group of clients demands a diverse group of interpreters each with their own skill set. It now seems like SLIs are regarded as something that schools pushed out of the “training machine” all with the same settings, when in fact loads of individual knowledge is lost now”


Consequences of government cuts

Finland has a reputation for high quality Sign Language interpreting, with a provision and choice that is difficult to beat. Finland is a country to ratify the UNCRPD, as well to pass the Sign Language Act (Finland) both of which explicitly outline the right to Sign Language interpreters. This begs the question: how can stripping the community of hundreds of highly qualified interpreters be of any benefit to the country?

The real life consequences seem obvious: with a reduced number of interpreters available, people will have to wait longer for appointments, with less choice and control when they finally are allocated an interpreter. The skilled interpreters who didn’t make the cut will be forced to retrain, or take one of the few available lower paid positions with the agencies Kela allowed to remain on their list. With interpreting no longer an appealing career the inevitable result will be a lack of newer trainees entering the profession.

A representative of the Finnish Association of Sign Language Interpreters (TULKIT) told NUBSLI:

“What the point of the whole situation is still that the versatile interpreting services provided so far will be less than before and securing interpreters for clients will become more difficult…

As we know, there is a lot more to the quality of interpreters than their working years. This is not visible to Kela and they are letting go of interpreters with special skills that our clients need.”

Even if the Finnish Government does repeal their decision after the suggested two year period, the damage to the profession, community and reputation will be done.

How this affects British Sign Language/English interpreters

But why should British Sign Language interpreters care? There’s a saying that “a rising tide lifts all boats” well, the opposite is also true. If this is the situation in a country such as Finland, then what is to stop our government following suit? As we fight Framework Agreements and Access to Work caps we need to be aware of the struggles of our international colleagues.

Of course, Finnish Sign Language interpreters are fighting back, and what is really heartening about the situation is that the campaign has been led by Deaf activists. There are planned demonstrations to protest Kela’s decision. Within hours of the announcement #stopKela was trending and the Herää Kelan tulkkauspalveluFacebook group (English: “wake up Kela’s interpreting service”) was flooded with posts damning Kela’s decision. There has since been a Stop Kela website launched.

One activist told NUBSLI:

“Of course, interpreters are in cooperation, we have a great network but unfortunately not all. Many stay quiet; they are afraid of losing their jobs if they are protesting.”

NUBSLI will be supporting the campaign in any way we can. We offer solidarity to our Finnish comrades and will be sharing updates to our members as things progress.

I’ll leave the final comment with Maartje de Meulder, a Flemish activist and academic, who tweeted: “[…] we should never take any rights for granted – they can be taken away at any random moment #stopkela”