NICKY EVANS reports on her union NUBSLI’s boycott victory over greedy employers
THE National Union of British Sign Language Interpreters (NUBSLI) has won a victory over low fees and adverse terms and conditions with Language Line Solutions (LLS), a language translation agency which holds one of the largest government framework contracts.
In November 2016 NUBSLI initiated a boycott of contracts held by LLS in Sheffield, which was joined by London interpreters in December.
NUBSLI worked hard to raise concerns over the use of frameworks since they were first proposed in 2015. The government’s Crown Commercial Service (CCS), which established the first language and translation framework, introduced terms that were below industry standards in an attempt to reduce access costs.
NUBSLI made it clear to the CCS that a reduction from the usual fee system of half day bookings to twohour time slots would be detrimental to the profession and lead to a decline in the number of interpreters, which would ultimately drive prices up.
Any savings would be short-term once the impact of unsustainable fees began to emerge. The CCS declined to act on this industry advice.
LLS is perhaps the largest corporate business to hold a British Sign Language (BSL)/English interpreting contract under the shared business services framework. Having won contracts, LLS announced it would be reducing interpreters’ pay and making changes to its employees’ terms and conditions without any consultation or discussion locally or nationally.
Following a meeting with LLS in 2016, and after consultation with our members, it became clear that NUBSLI had no alternative but to boycott the related contracts held by LLS.
Having only established the union in 2014, for a previously non-politicised profession, the decision to boycott contracts held by LLS wasn’t taken lightly — especially as this was likely to impact on access for deaf service users. It demonstrates the significant threat we believe the framework agreements are to our profession.
As the first ever action the union has taken, it was important for it to be successful. With just under 40 per cent of the profession as members, we were confident that withdrawing our services would have a significant impact.
It was clear that LLS didn’t believe any action would hold. As a branch of freelance interpreters, many of our members in Sheffield became aware of interpreters as far away as Scotland being approached to cover their work. Thankfully, as a small profession, there was support nationwide.
The boycott held for seven months until finally, last week, LLS conceded that it was unable to deliver the service it had been contracted to provide. The company has now implemented a new payment arrangement and agreed to the guidance fees NUBSLI members work to.
NUBSLI chairperson Emma Lipton, one of the interpreters to join the Sheffield boycott, said: “This is a huge win for NUBSLI. While it hasn’t been a quick win and we don’t pretend it was easy, with many members sacrificing their main stream of work and income, particularly in Sheffield, their persistence has paid off.
“It is to them we would like to offer our thanks as they have led the way for the rest of the profession.”
The government continues to create new frameworks and ignore our concerns, insisting on two-hour booking periods.
We will continue to oppose these and refuse to work to hourly rates as this is not a long-term sustainable model for the profession.
An exit survey carried out by NUBSLI in March 2016 highlighted that many experienced and highly skilled interpreters are already leaving the profession.
The union believes this is in part a direct result of the erosion of fees, terms and conditions caused by framework agreements. As newer and less experienced interpreters enter the workforce, they require time to develop the wealth of knowledge and skills required.
This leaves a deficit in the number of suitable interpreters available to undertake these specialised assignments, which as a result drives up fees, causing the exact opposite effect intended by the frameworks.
We have seen how other workers’ rights are being driven down to unacceptable levels with the example of home care workers. The impact this has had on those in need of social care has been shocking.
NUBSLI has a significant role to play in defending the rights of deaf BSL users to high quality access provision as well as the integrity of our profession.
We would like to give special thanks to the deaf and disabled activists that joined us on our protest outside the LLS offices and in particular to DPAC’s experienced campaigners who supported us throughout our action.
We would urge any BSL/English interpreters who are not yet members to join us. This victory has clearly shown the power of collective action. With more and more pressure being placed upon us, now is the time to join the fightback!
Nicky Evans is NUBSLI branch secretary. Visit nubsli.com for more information or to join the union.