Streik, grève, strike: European Parliament interpreters walk off the job

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The European Parliament and its interpreters are talking past each other — again.

Parliament interpreters walked off the job last week, angry at deteriorating health conditions from spending hours trying to translate people calling into meetings from cars and restaurants over bad connections. They were suffering from tinnitus and ear fullness, they said, not to mention insomnia, nausea and vision deficiencies.

“It’s like driving at night under the rain versus traveling by day under good weather,” said one EU interpreter. “You get to your destination at the same hour, but in the first case, there’s a growing risk of accident and increased fatigue once you get there.”

Yet days later, Parliament simply replaced some of the absent workers, hiring non-accredited interpreters via external agencies — a move it said was necessary to keep Parliament functioning. In the meantime, the Parliament said it is conducting a “thorough risk analysis” and had improved remote participation tools. 

“The code of conduct for remote interventions is also being reinforced,” a Parliament spokesperson said. “When the sound quality is not sufficient, interpretation can be refused.”

Meetings between Parliament staff and interpreters have been unfruitful, despite pleas from Parliament President Roberta Metsola to find a solution | Pool photo by Ludovic Marin via Getty Images

It’s not the first time the EU institution has tangled with its polylingual translators. During the pandemic, the Parliament canceled the contracts of many interpreters after shutting down its big in-person sessions. Now, like numerous other industries — from aviation to hospitality — it’s struggling to adapt to a new working world.

For now, the two sides appear at an impasse. Meetings between Parliament staff and interpreters have been unfruitful, despite pleas from Parliament President Roberta Metsola to find a solution.

“It is now our shared responsibility to ensure the carrying out of all necessary activities of the Parliament in the best possible way, after a very difficult period for all,” she wrote in an email, seen by POLITICO, to representatives of staff interpreters.

When talking goes digital

When the pandemic blanketed the Brussels bubble, the European Parliament canceled meetings and made drastic cuts to the EU’s typical cadre of 3,200 freelance interpreters — 1,200 of whom have regular contracts, according to EU data.

But now, the Parliament has lifted its COVID-19 restrictions, meaning “the vast majority of speakers are present in the meeting rooms,” the Parliament spokesperson said.

As a result, many interpreters have gone back to work — but not always in person. 

Interpreters argue that spending hours translating online speeches — often streamed over low-quality connections — has worsened their work and health conditions. In addition, they say, Parliament hasn’t adapted to the new hybrid format, failing to adopt “provisions for remote participation in multilingual meetings,” according to a statement from the International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC). 

Another EU interpreter said the Parliament’s medical service flagged ear problems for 100 out of 240 staff interpreters in 2021 — an entirely pandemic year. 

“Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, interpreters have had to work with highly-degraded sound due to remote participation and have repeatedly alerted the EU Institutions about the health issues resulting from this exposure,” the AIIC said. 

The strike, the AIIC added, is aimed at “drawing attention” to the health problems — and lack of technical solutions. “But there’s also a need,” AIIC added, “to discuss and agree upon working conditions that are adapted to the way the Parliament is likely to carry out its work from now on.”

The Parliament’s decision to replace the workers has only exacerbated tensions. 

The “Union For Unity” and “Union Syndicale Luxembourg,” two of the major unions representing EU staff, said the move was simply illegal and “problematic from an operational, legal and social dialogue point of view.” In an email sent last week to Metsola, the groups wrote that the Parliament’s Directorate General for Logistics and Interpretation for Conferences, which oversees interpretation of meetings, had “breached a number of rules in force,” including the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU.

The Parliament spokesperson said the body was only using outside interpreters for “extremely limited” purposes. 

“The procuring of services with an external provider was an operational decision taking into account the needs of the Parliament,” the spokesperson said. “It has already happened in the past for this kind of conference services.”

In parallel, the spokesperson noted, the Parliament was working to improve working conditions, pointing out that the remote services had been improved “based on the feedback from and in cooperation with interpreter representatives.”

It’s not been enough to get interpreters back on the job, though. 

Meanwhile, within the Parliament, some members are taking notice of the difficulties Zoom has wrought on interpreters. 

The Socialists & Democrats group internally circulated an email, seen by POLITICO, asking its MEPs to “connect from a quiet location,” “close the windows and doors” and avoid connecting from an iPhone or “while on the move or in a public place.”

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