Are professional associations actively working against their members?
October 24, 2018 § 7 Comments
Several government decisions in the United States and elsewhere have impacted our profession recently, and they all have something in common: They have protected interpreters and translators from some one-sided practices enacted by multinational language providers, copied by smaller interpreting and translation agencies, and adopted by some government bureaucracies to appear as if they are meeting their legal obligations to society.
Some of the most notorious and talked about decisions include the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) order to the U.S. government services contractor SOS International (SOSi) to reclassify its interpreters working in United States state courts as employees in March 2018, bestowing interpreters and translators who worked for this agency as independent contractors with all protections defined by the National Labor Relations Act, including benefits reserved to full-time workers. In April 2018 some Lionbridge contractors who provided their services as software testers at Microsoft, settled a case they had before the NLRB.
Despite the effects of the decision above, it was the landmark ruling on April 2018 by the California Supreme Court in the Dynamex case that shook the status quo like nothing before. California’s highest court ruled that the delivery service provider Dynamex misclassified its workers as independent contractors when they should be protected and treated as employees. Here, the Supreme Court of California adopted the “ABC test” to determine if a contractor is an independent worker instead of an employee. This decision’s repercussions extended to all individuals providing services as independent contractors, including interpreters and translators, when the company is in control of the performance of such service contractually or de facto; to those contractors who perform a service that falls within the usual services regularly provided by the company; and to those contractors who cannot be regularly selling their services to other clients, because they are constantly engaged by the company, leaving them no time to work somewhere else.
There are many interpreters and translators, myself included, who do not want to be employees anywhere; There are many interpreters and translators, myself included, whose professional practice will not be affected by these or other rulings similar to the ones mentioned above; however, many colleagues would benefit from such decisions. These are usually the colleagues who these entities take advantage of. We are talking about colleagues who, for many reasons, cannot ditch the exploiter and have to roll with the punches, accepting work under deplorable conditions such as rock-bottom fees, solo interpreting assignments, interpretations on a pay-per-minute basis, and other abuses practiced by these agencies never stopped by the authorities before.
As expected, many agencies who practice this business model got extremely nervous: This could be the beginning of the end to their lucrative unchallenged practices. They would not allow this to happen.
On August 8, 2018 the Association of Language Companies (ALC) met in Washington, D.C. to conspire about a way to keep independent interpreters and translators from gaining these legal protections and to maintain the up-until-now comfortable uneven field they enjoy. As a first step, they lobbied the United States Congress to change the law and make it impossible for these interpreters and translators to benefit from the administrative and judicial resolutions that protected them. The event was organized by ALC’s lobbyist: The Joint Committee for Languages and the National Council for Languages and International Studies (JNCL-NCLIS). During the meeting, ALC delegates argued that “…the added cost of providing full benefits to every single contractor would likely put many (agencies) in danger of going out of business…” They manifested that “…the implications for the “industry” could be devastating…” There are two more ALC summits already scheduled for the first half of 2019. For more details on the Dynamex ruling and my interpretation of the ways it benefits all independent interpreters and translators, even those who do not deal with these multinational or abusive agencies, please read my blog entry of August 29, 2018.
We can see that a confrontation of ideas and how we view our profession contrasted by the way these entities perceive us as industry laborers may be inevitable. I do not blame the agencies for defending their golden eggs goose. I understand their decision to lobby Congress to protect their interests; unlike professional interpreters and translators, their loyalty is to their shareholders and partners, not to the quality of the service or the profession. We also need to defend our interests, and we will.
To do it, we all know that we face a David and Goliath battle against the ALC and others. They have the finances to fight us in court and Congress. There are no surprises here and we must plan accordingly.
Unfortunately, on top of the known obstacles we need to overcome, potentially, there is an added problem, something that most colleagues are unaware of, something that looks wrong: Some of the professional associations of interpreters and translators, including the largest, use and pay for the services of the same lobbyist ALC is using to undermine the interests of many of their own members: our colleagues.
The American Translators Association (ATA) is represented, in its lobbying efforts, by the Joint Committee for Languages and the National Council for Languages and International Studies (JNCL-NCLIS). Let me explain: ATA membership fees are used to pay for the services of JNCL-NCLIS simultaneously this lobbyist is advancing ALC’s cause to kill those government decisions that favor many independent interpreters and translators. ATA is not the only professional association with a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., but it is the largest one, and it is the one with Board members up for election this week at the general meeting in New Orleans. This post is not motivated by any ill feelings towards ATA or any other professional association, but by my desire to have more transparent governance and accountability in our associations to protect our profession from those who try to dehumanize it and turn it into a laborer’s service.
I will now disclose some facts about JNCL-NCLIS so you understand exactly who we are dealing with: Unlike most lobbyists, they are a non-for-profit organization that started servicing foreign language teachers. There was a time, however, when ATA’s leadership decided, without a real explanation to the membership, there was synergy between these teachers and ATA members who are not teachers, but interpreters and translators. ATA pays a yearly fee to JNCL-NCLIS for its services as a lobbyist. This differs from the usual per-hour fees that most lobbyists charge to their clients. The amount of this annual payment is based on the size of ATA’s membership, because it is paid with our membership fees. The person from JNCL-NCLIS who deals with ATA is Bill Rivers, who also deals with ALC, and continuously works for the advancement of the interests of the agencies. Interests often in conflict with the interests of ATA’s individual membership (us), even though they benefit its corporate members (they). Bill Rivers deals with ATA’s presidency, not with the Board. The Chair of this lobbyist’s Education and Pedagogy Committee (an unpaid position) is a former ATA President. JNCL-NCLIS has assisted at least one agency owner ATA Board member, along with other agencies, on another matter affecting workers’ compensation for interpreters and translators somewhere in the northwest.
There is a huge conflict of interest, and ATA should retain a different lobbyist, even if the fee is higher. No other association in the world spends the money ATA spends on its annual conference, and an independent lobbyist would be more beneficial to the membership at large than such an extravagant, expensive conference. Corporate members would lose an ally, but professional associations exist to benefit the individual, not the corporations.
Even if JNCL-NCLIS lobbyists are professional honorable people, when lobbying for ALC, they could disclose to House members and Senators they are also ATA’s lobbyists; This will convey the message that interpreters and translators endorse the same positions and business model these multinational agencies do.
Some of ATA Board members are agency owners who vote on decisions that could adversely affect individual interpreters and translators. There is nothing on the bylaws banning this practice, but it is another conflict of interest.
The bylaws need to be amended, if not to bar small agency owners from the Board, to at least keep them from voting where they may have a conflict of interest, or there may be the appearance of one. Meanwhile, all Board members who own an agency, and there are at least three at the moment, and two will remain as part of the Board after this week’s elections, must recuse themselves from participating in any debate and casting any vote where there may be, or may appear to be a conflict of interest. This all judges and corporate board members do every day all over the world.
I invite you to demand that all professional associations with lobbyists on retainer only hire lobbyists that do not represent the interests of the agencies and corporations, and bar all agency owners from voting where there is, or may be a conflict of interest. Meanwhile, I invite you all to vote this week in New Orleans for ATA candidates who oppose the current lobbyist situation and support the recusal of all Board members who own an agency in case of a potential conflict of interest. I now ask you to share your thoughts on these crucial matters to any professional association.