In the wake of the Covid19 pandemic approximately 1,800 Conference Interpreting Agents, or ACIs, face financial uncertainty over the European Union’s decision to cease payments and because they are unable to claim temporary unemployment due to their special tax status, their position at the moment remains unclear. ACI Svetlana Spaic breaks down the issue in detail and tells us her story behind the struggle.
The Covid 19 crisis and the isolation it has entailed have affected us all and will leave consequences, both negative and positive, on our psyche, our wallet and our planet for years to come. For some sectors – culture and especially performing arts, tourism, the hotel industry and catering – it has been all but fatal. Throughout the countries of Europe aid mechanisms have been created, ensuring that no business or self-employed worker, especially the most vulnerable, are left behind. After an initially confused and slow reaction, the European Union released an astronomical amount of money. From Brussels, the heart and capital of the Union, hundreds of billions of euros have spread across the continent, reaching even the most distant and modest citizen and silencing many of those who doubted European values and solidarity. So is this introduction going to end with the words: “And they all lived happily ever after”? Alas, no.
There is a group of workers which has incomprehensibly passed under the radar, although many of its members have lost all sources of income since the beginning of the crisis in mid-March. So where, you may ask, are these people hiding? How far away and few in numbers must they be to have slipped through the net? Yet as we know from crime novels, the easiest way to hide a compromising object is to leave it in plain sight. Indeed we, the invisible few excluded from all solidarity schemes, are right at the heart of Europe – not only in the city of Brussels, but actually inside the EU institutions. In other words, we are in the eye of the storm – and starting to realise why they say that it is in its apparent calm that things are worst of all.
So who are we and why have we remained invisible? We are self-employed Auxiliary Conference Interpreters – ACIs – accredited by the European institutions. We cover half of all their daily meetings, the other half being covered by permanent staff. The European institutions are the world’s largest employer of conference interpreters; in addition to approximately 800 staff interpreters there is a pool of some 3,200 ACIs. 1,200 of them work for the institutions regularly and often exclusively. This guarantees multilingualism – one of the basic principles of the European Union – which allows the representatives of the Member States at all levels to speak and follow the discussions in their mother tongues. This is crucial if they are to be selected based on competence rather than their knowledge of foreign languages. Being invisible is what we mind least, given that we are used to working behind the tinted glass of our booths and that our ethics require full discretion. The trust-based contractual relationship with our employer is mutual: those who decide to move their professional domicile to Brussels are awarded “employability” points, with additional points for each active and passive language and for quality too, which is constantly monitored and evaluated. This is why many of us have left our homes, friends and family as well as our regular clients and have moved to the rainy European capital. Rainy days are ideal for meandering through the labyrinth of EU terminology and for working on “adding” new languages with each one taking several years of dedicated study. The more obscure they are, the more desirable our language combination becomes, though at the same time less useful outside the “EU bubble”. Whether we like it or not this unwritten contract with the EU institutions has come at a cost of narrow specialisation and some real sacrifice.
And then came Covid. In March all our options – contracts yet to be confirmed – were cancelled. Long term contracts, which can be cancelled only with 60 days notice, were honoured, though for technical reasons not all ACIs have access to them. In the meantime the volume of conferences dropped by 90% and the chances of work picking up significantly by the end of the year remain slim.
The situation was further complicated by the fact that we pay tax directly to the European institutions and so in most cases are not entitled to national aid. It is for all these reasons that when at the end of March long term contracts beyond the sixty day mark also started being cancelled, we turned to our European employers for help.
The response was slow and our elected representatives launched a call for negotiations and started discussions. Even when faced with a wall of bureaucratic explanations – that there is “no legal basis”, “no budget” and “no social security scheme” to help us – and even when negotiations seemed to be taking forever, we were not prepared to go public about the issue. In spite of the dire situation many of us were in, we waited patiently for the end of the negotiations and the proposal which would, we were certain, solve the issue of the legal void we found ourselves in. We kept silent for the simple reason that we are all, almost without exception, convinced Europeans and we did not want to give more ammunition to the extreme right and their media outlets to undermine even further the European Union and its values. After close to two months of negotiations, the European Commission and the European Parliament finally came up with what was subsequently dubbed by us “a non-offer”. Not aid then, but a one-off loan: an advance payment equivalent to three to four days’ employment to be worked off by the end of the year , at their convenience, once the crisis was over. In other words, work for free at a time when we could finally start to recover financially. The proposal was submitted on a ‘take it or leave it’ basis and social dialogue was then unilaterally terminated by our employer. The offer would be sent to individual ACIs, which is a sure way to undermine unity and weaken the cause. If a minority that are either particularly hard hit or badly informed accepts the offer, it could be inferred that those who were in need accepted it whereas those who refused didn’t need any help to start with.
Now I will not write about our feelings of anger, helplessness, betrayal, the ground being pulled from under our feet… I will instead write about something very beautiful that this has brought about. And that is an unprecedented unity and solidarity amongst ourselves. Even those who are the hardest hit are not planning to accept the offer. Our vow of silence has been broken and we no longer feel like accomplices in an injustice. Articles and news coverage about our situation are being published all over Europe on a daily basis; it turns out that injustice still has the power to raise hackles. And we have started taking action, both individually and collectively. The first event took place on June 3 when a group of socially-distanced ACIs held posters in front of the European Commission with the words “multilingualism” and “solidarity” written in the 24 official languages of the EU, with the European Anthem -Beethoven’s Ode to Joy – playing in the background. The exercise was repeated a week later with twice as many interpreters and a lot more media coverage. A number of MEPs expressed their support and called for action. Staff interpreters are massively and collectively expressing their support of their unprotected colleagues by sending protest letters to their – and our – employers and publicly voicing their solidarity with ACIs. We don’t know of course if all this will help nor can it feed our families. However, it is food for the soul and makes us feel less alone. We still cherish the hope that this tale will not one day read : “Once upon a time there was a profession called conference interpreting and now it is no more.”
So you may be wondering if I still believe in the European values. My answer is yes, I still do – though perhaps through grit-ted teeth. Why? First of all, to paraphrase Churchill : it is the worst form of government except for all the rest. Also because I believe that solidarity and unity are worth striving for, however thorny their implementation, and I am well aware of what nationalism and the spirit of division have done to many once beautiful countries. And finally, to echo the early Christian phrase: Credo Quia Absurdum – I believe because it is absurd.
For more information on this dispute, click on episode 21 of our Eurochat podcast.
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I’ve linked this and the podcast to my one time interpreter in Viet Nam, Thao Minh Chu. She works mainly regionally, roughly between VN and Australia, a big Pacific region as I am sure you know. She studied in Australia and India, so is well qualified like you. Like interpreters I have had a lot to do with, she has been treated like some kind of a servant, not exactly richly paid and any kind of job security is unknown. So much like you. It is, in my view, a global problem, so the more people this reaches the better.