Freelance interpreters working for the EU institutions condemned a new “deferred contract” designed to compensate them for lack of earnings during the coronavirus crisis as inadequate and lacking any certainty about future work.
With the European Parliament, Commission and Council either operating remotely or at vastly reduced capacity for weeks, most of those employed to provide simultaneous verbal interpretation of the words of MEPs and officials have had very little or no work since the beginning of the crisis.
To make matters worse, because they are contracted directly, many pay income tax into the EU budget rather than to their national governments and so are not eligible for national social security benefits or government-backed furlough schemes.
The special “deferred contract” — which is offered to around 1,200 people with regular freelance contracts — effectively provides a loan of €2,200 before tax (equivalent to three to four days’ work depending on experience or €1,300 after tax). This is an up-front payment in lieu of shifts worked between now and the end of the year. But the contract offers no guarantee of further shifts beyond the three or four days of interpreting work, while reducing flexibility to take other work — even if such work exists.
Many interpreters argue this is inadequate. “So in plain text, we get €1,300 for our livelihood from mid-March or early June until the end of the year!” Birgit Kaiser-Fernane, a freelance EU interpreter, wrote on her Facebook page. “For many of us, this would mean the end of our career as interpreters.”
“We have no visibility on the future and it’s very upsetting to see that the institutions, for which we have invested so much effort, are leaving us behind” — Freelance EU institutions interpreter
“This would also mean that many of us will no longer be available after the crisis, when we are needed for meetings again,” she added.
Another freelance interpreter who has worked for the EU institutions for 25 years described the offer as “ridiculous and an insult to our profession.”
“We have no visibility on the future and it’s very upsetting to see that the institutions, for which we have invested so much effort, are leaving us behind,” she added.
Alexandra Geese, a German Green MEP and a former EU interpreter, condemned the “total lack of solidarity” from the EU institutions. “[They] should show their appreciation with a decent economic proposal to get them over the crisis … As an MEP I’m ashamed by how we are treating people who work for us with utmost loyalty.”
The EU delegation to the International Association of Conference Interpreters rejected the proposal and called for “emergency support” for the workers in a letter to the Commission’s Directorate General for Interpretation (DG SCIC) and the Parliament’s Directorate-General for Logistics and Interpretation for Conferences (DG LINC.)
The new contract is aimed at helping regular interpreters who don’t have a permanent employment contract during the ongoing uncertainty about the number of meetings the EU institutions will hold over the coming months. According to Kaiser-Fernance, the German presidency of the EU, which starts in July, has said that only around a third of planned meetings are expected to take place between now and the end of the year, with many of those in virtual format.
“The payment will be made in advance while the assignment dates will be confirmed at a later stage,” according to an internal note published on the Commission’s intranet platform and issued by DG SCIC and DG LINC.
It will “provide income in the critical months before the summer break,” the note said. Contributions and insurance schemes will be paid “once the interpretation assignment is executed by the freelance interpreter.”
A spokesperson for the Parliament said it was “a solution that allows us to respect our contract-based relationship with those interpreters, but also our social responsibility.” They added that only a fifth of freelance interpreters are now back at work.
If the COVID-19 crisis continues beyond the summer, the Parliament could offer freelance interpreters “additional contracts for interpretation-related activities regarding new technologies, skills enhancement and training,” wrote Agnieszka Walter-Drop, the director general of DG LINC, in a group email seen by POLITICO.