Interpreting during a pandemic

By NUBSLI | Published on 22 June 2020

Related: Covid-19

The following piece has been submitted by a member as a question/comment for the Unite live broadcast ‘The State of Work‘ on 27 May 2020.

It has been written as a result of the uncertain times we find ourselves in and is a great demonstration of a member being proactive.  We encourage you to read it and imagine how much we can achieve if we all actively fight together for our profession.

Shared with permission:

I am a self-employed sign language interpreter. Our profession has a high number of self-employed people. Our profession is already underpaid and undervalued.

We have suffered greatly from the National Framework Agreements, from interpreting agencies’ indifference to standards, quality and experience and desire to drive prices down so that they can win contracts and increase profit margins.

The interpreting agencies are part of big organisations, like Capita, which are just money machines. Even some of the smaller, specialist sign language interpreting agencies are primarily profit-focussed, seeking the interpreters who will charge least.

Most self-employed interpreters have not been able to increase their fees since the first recession hit in 2008. Our fees have stayed the same and agencies have driven the travel mileage down from 45p/mile to 40p/mile. This means that in effect we have lost income year on year in line with inflation.

All my work disappeared overnight when Lockdown was announced. Some interpreters have managed to invest in additional equipment to work remotely. Some agencies require interpreters to buy agency-specific equipment that costs between £1000-3000. Many interpreters are not able to invest the money or have skills that suit complex face-to-face work such as police and mental health.

As lockdown is relaxed, some of us will not be able to return to work because of childcare and shielding. Much of our work will not be reinstated until the clients we work with come out of furlough. I imagine a lot of our work will not return at all for many years because organisations have been so badly hit financially.

There are two things I would like to ask my union to support me with in lobbying the government:

  1. to extend the SEISS scheme [Self-Employed Income Support Scheme] in line with the furlough scheme
  2. to argue against any increase in tax for self-employed people (which the Chancellor has already been hinting at because he has no idea about how much we have to set aside for sick pay, holiday pay, admin time etc etc).

Historically, there have not been enough sign language interpreters to meet the communication needs of Deaf and hearing people. With the state of play pre COVID-19, some interpreters were contemplating leaving the profession anyway, because it is so poorly valued. Post COVID-19, our profession risks haemorrhaging experienced, skilled people.

I have worked as an interpreter for over 15 years, am a Standards Advisor to my registering body, have specialist interpreting skills and have already started looking at jobs which have nothing to do with sign language interpreting.