Are we protecting our profession? Part 1.

March 29, 2016 § 49 Comments

Dear Colleagues:

Every now and then something happens in our profession that makes me wonder if we are truly doing what is best for all of us: individually and collectively as interpreters and translators.  In fact, this happened recently when I learned, like many of you, that the American Translators Association had revisited the antitrust legislation issue and had reviewed its policy.  As expected, ATA followed its traditional pattern of protecting the “interests” of the association over the interests of its individual members or the profession, and adopted a policy that clearly observes antitrust legislation as is, without questioning it.   It is not clear to me how the association arrived to this resolution to endorse everything the government wants, and is included in the legislation and case law, without first seeking a legal opinion from attorneys who disagree with the current antitrust laws or their interpretation by the government.  As I understand it, the mission of a professional association is to advance and protect the interests of its members and the profession they practice.  This can only be accomplished by assessing the current legislation as to its impact on those who it is supposed to protect.  I am convinced that a well-publicized campaign to get public comments from the membership, and seeking a legal opinion as to how to interpret the current legislation in the light most favorable to the interests of the individual interpreters and translators, which could have included proposed amendments to the antitrust legislation would have been fruitful and very successful.  Of course, it would have rocked the status quo where big multinational businesses, sponsors or members of the association, benefit from the current interpretation of the law and the association’s corporate policy, that leaves the individual members on an uneven field where they cannot talk about the insulting and sometimes degrading fees, or rates as these huge corporations refer to them, that are offered for their interpreting and translation services.

We all want to comply with the law, and nobody is suggesting that we break any legislation. On the contrary, we should always observe the law of the land, as these rules and regulations exist to protect the weaker members of society from the actions of those who are in a position to take advantage of them.  This does not mean that we should not question a legal precept when we believe that it is not advancing justice or protecting the weak.

Antitrust legislation was born in the United States in the latter part of the 19th. century when the legislator, first at the state level, and later at the federal Congress, saw the need to protect consumers from big business that at the time was acting as big conglomerates with “excessive” economic power according to the opinion of a majority of the citizens of the United States. The goal of the legislation was to regulate the conduct of business corporations by promoting a fair competition for the benefit of the consumer. Legislation such as the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887, the Sherman Act of 1890, the Clayton Act of 1914, and the Federal Trade Commission Act of 1914 became the law of the land.  They were followed by more recent laws like the Robinson-Patman Act of 1936 and the Celler-Kefauver Act of 1950. Ohio Senator John Sherman clearly explained the rationale behind this policy when he said that: “…If we will not endure a king as a political power, we should not endure a king over production, transportation, and sale of any of the necessaries of life…” (Speech delivered in the U.S. Senate on March 21, 1890) The U.S. Supreme Court agreed with this spirit of the legislation when it referred to the Sherman Act as a “charter of freedom, designed to protect free enterprise in America” (Appalachian Coals, Inc. v. United States, 288 U.S. ({{{5}}} 1933) 344 [359]) Antitrust legislation goes against the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution, but it is tailored under strict scrutiny to limit this right only as it protects the consumer from the voracious unscrupulous merchant. We have many examples of these businesses throughout the more than one hundred years of antitrust laws in the country: The mining industry, the automobile industry, and even the telephone industry are some of the examples that come to mind. In all of these cases we can clearly see the benefits of restricting commercial and industrial activities to avoid monopolies.  We do not dispute that, but the fact is that the world has changed and we now face a very different economic reality than the one faced by the antitrust legislator of the 19th. century.

Technological advances and the rapid growth of globalization have created a world with uneven realities and circumstances in many fields, including interpreting and translating. When applied today, the rules conceived to protect the weak from the powerful, provide shelter to multinationals like Capita, SOSi, and LionBridge who take advantage, with the blessing of some of our professional associations, of the legal ban to talk about fees and working conditions of professional interpreters and translators who are forced to negotiate with commercial, not professional, entities who take advantage of any circumstance they can use in their favor.

But it does not need to be that way, a careful reading of the law shows us that discussing fees and work circumstances is legal, as long as there is no agreement to fix a fee.  The problem is that, to avoid any possible discomfort, some professional associations adopt internal rules and policies where all mention of fees has been proscribed.  It is clear that there is a need for litigation, it is the courts, not the executive branch, who should decide if these 19th. century rules designed to protect the little guy from big business should apply to individuals who make a living from the practice of a professional service, not an industrial or commercial activity (despite the efforts by many to convince us of this model) who are constantly oppressed and taken advantage of by the big business of multinational interpreting and translation corporations.

Who is the little guy who needs the protection of the law under these circumstances? Professional service providers should not fix their fees for services offered to their individual clients: the consumers in this scenario; but there is a big difference between offering services to a neighbor or a store down the street where I live, and having to accept rock bottom fees from publicly traded entities who have a presence in fifty countries.  The court system needs to decide these cases, and if the decision is adverse, the legislation has to be changed. Not all legislation is good or fair; in fact, there are plenty of examples where we can see how the law created or enabled an unjust situation. Let us remember that not long ago the United States had legislation that favor slavery, or deprived women from the right to vote.  This is where professional associations are expected to act to protect their individual members and above all: the profession.

Perpetuating the present situation will not advance the profession, it will mutate it into some kind of involuntary servitude where the big guys will call the shots.  I now ask you for your comments, in the understanding that nobody is calling for violating current legislation, just to change what we have right now, and to opine about the role that a professional association should play when the profession needs to be protected from exterior forces who are trying to hijack it from the interpreters and translators.   Next week we will discuss the same topic from a different perspective: The professional associations and the battle against the professionalization of the interpreter.

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