The lack of physical meetings during the COVID-19 lockdown has been devastating for nearly 1,200 freelance interpreters in the European institutions. Some of them took part in a protest at the heart of the EU institutions on Wednesday (3 June). EURACTIV Bulgaria reports.
Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, freelance interpreters or Agents for Conference Interpreting (ACIs) were employed by the European institutions on long-term, medium-term and short-term contracts. Like full-time interpreters, ACIs were encouraged to improve their language skills and relocate to Brussels and a large number of them took that decision.
The European institutions are their main and often only employer. But as a result of the COVID-19 lockdown, almost all meetings in the EU institutions have been cancelled, a measure which was applied without prior consultation with interpreters’ representatives. Under contractual obligations, the ACIs were paid a small sum until the end of May.
They say their legal status as freelance interpreters puts them at a disadvantage, while the European institutions remain ‘deaf’ to their problems.
As part of the EU institutions, around 1,200 ACIs pay their tax to the EU – at the source. However, being part of the EU structure makes them ineligible for national support schemes or social security coverage in case of unemployment.
As the pandemic has significantly shrunk the demand for their services on the private market, ACIs’ main employer has distanced itself from them, Ines Pavlova, a Bulgarian freelance interpreter at the EU institutions, told EURACTIV.
The legal status of the ACIs is similar to that of truck drivers or delivery personnel, who have fewer welfare perks as they are freelancers, but the nature of the work usually leads to having only one employer.
At the end of May, two of the three interpretation services of the European institutions (the Commission’s DG SCIC and the Parliament’s DG LINC) presented a proposal a month after the last meeting with the AIIC EU negotiating delegation. The offer is “essentially a loan” – to the ACIs to compensate for the loss of income during the pandemic.
The compensation is in the form of 3 or 4 ‘deferred contracts’ and amounts to €1,300. The proposal will not be reviewed until September. ACIs will receive a one-off payment for these contracts shortly after accepting the package and will have to work off the days sometime before 31 December 2020. This new type of contract has never been used before.
This means that instead of the compensation to which most workers in EU member states are entitled, by the end of the year, freelance interpreters will essentially receive an advance equal to their compensation for 3-4 working days.
Lack of dialogue
Although firmly against the proposal, the AIIC negotiating delegation cannot start a dialogue with the institutions because the offer is final and non-negotiable. The fact that the proposal will not be made to the whole group of 1,200 interpreters but to each employee individually is also indicative.
Contacted by EURACTIV, the European Commission acknowledged the problem but explained that the proposed solution was the only legal mechanism.
“The Commission is not offering a one-time repayable loan. Instead, conscious of the uncertainty of income during the months of June and July for freelance interpreters, the Commission has developed a contract-based mitigating measure with advance payment, to bridge the months of lower demand in June/July. This means that freelance interpreters will be paid upfront for services delivered later in the year,” reads the answer.
Tanya Popova, a freelance Bulgarian interpreter with nine years of experience in the European institutions, is one of those who relocated with family to Brussels. Her working languages are English and French, and she is currently studying German.
“I feel honoured to contribute to linguistic diversity in the heart of Europe. I have always been attracted by this unity in diversity, where the voice of each of us is being heard. Unfortunately, at these challenging times, I do not see unity and solidarity with us, the freelance interpreters in the EU”, she told EURACTIV Bulgaria.
Her colleague Ines Pavlova, a freelance English to Bulgarian interpreter, added that during a pandemic, the formal criteria for denying freelance interpreters a replacement income should not apply.
“The rules of the past are inapplicable in the present situation”, underlined Pavlova.
Nevertheless, the European institutions say they have no legal basis to offer genuine solidarity to freelance interpreters, despite repeatedly stating in recent months that “Solidarity is at the very heart of Europe” and that “No one will be left behind”.