Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, two European Union institutions have decided on different approaches in their handling of long-term contracts with the auxiliary conference interpreters (ACIs) who work there. ACIs are contract interpreters responsible for over 50% of all simultaneous interpretation taking place at EU meetings (staff interpreters handle the rest).
The European Commission (EC) has decided to stop canceling long-term ACI contracts from September to December 2020, sources close to the matter told Slator. Back in June, a number of ACIs said they were “puzzled” and “hurt” by the EU’s mitigation offer after Covid-19 containment measures led to the cancelation of their contracts. This led some 70 ACIs to gather in front of Parliament in what organizers called a socially-distanced flash mob (video). As Slator reported in September, the EC’s interpretation service, DG SCIC, is currently searching for a new chief.
On the other hand, the European Parliament has decided to proceed with the cancelation of contracts on a rolling basis, applicable to 2019 long-term ACI contracts, a knowledgeable source told Slator. To soften the blow from the canceled contracts, the EP will provide something similar to the previous mitigation offer, which was described by officials as an “advance payment scheme.” This time, however, ACIs will be paid for taking online courses.
A July 23, 2020 message from Agnieszka Walter-Drop seen by Slator said that the EP would offer ACIs a “Skills Enhancement Scheme” beginning September 2020. Walter-Drop is the Director-General of the EP’s interpretation service, DG LINC. “The scheme will be structured around a number of topical online courses, dealing with subjects that are of particular relevance for interpreters working in EP meetings,” the message said.
As with earlier measures, both approaches by the Commission and Parliament come with certain conditions for ACIs to meet prior to being qualified.
ACIs who sign up for the EP’s Skills Enhancement Scheme “will be expected to demonstrate completion [of an online course] before receiving payment,” Walter-Drop’s message said. According to a source, ACIs will receive payment equivalent to three working days after passing an online test. The same source said one course lasts about eight hours.
The EC’s approach, meanwhile, only applies to long-term contracts. A source close to the matter pointed out that quite a few ACIs — mostly young and with less experience or non-local (i.e., relatively more expensive to hire) — do not work under long-term contracts.
“Meeting activity is still fairly low at the moment, although it has been on the rise” — Tom Van den Kerkhof, Conference Interpreter at the EU Institutions
Asked for his reaction to these latest developments, Tom Van den Kerkhof, a Brussels-based ACI working for the EC, EP, and Court of Justice, said: “Personally, I am grateful for these measures, [although] I don’t qualify. I am a local ACI and, therefore, still have long-term contracts with SCIC until the end of the year. For the European Parliament, I have been getting a couple of contracts per month since June, which excludes me from the eligibility criteria. So, in a way, I am fortunate. You must work less than 3 days in a given 30-day period in order to qualify.”
Van den Kerkhof added, “Meeting activity is still fairly low at the moment, although it has been on the rise. At the DG SCIC, I read they are at +/- 35% of the level last year. I don’t have any figures for the European Parliament but, from my own experience, I can tell there is a bit more work there as well.”
A knowledgeable source told Slator that there are now ongoing discussions between ACI representatives and the EU Institutions about other measures that could provide some financial certainty for ACIs moving forward.
The same source admitted that the situation is still changing and it would be early days to say whether current measures present any major improvement on the condition of contract interpreters working at the EU.