In a statement released on April 12, 2023, the Canadian chapter of the International Association of Conference interpreters (AIIC) denounced the new rules issued by Canada’s House of Commons (known as Parliament Hill) this month requiring freelance interpreters to work six-hour shifts in the booth.
While this amount of hours was long considered a regular (and safe) shift for in-person assignments, it is deemed a risky proposition for hybrid and online meetings due to sound issues documented to cause harmful effects on hearing. As a result of multiple reports of injuries during hybrid meetings, shifts in the booth had been cut from six to four hours.
The country’s Labor Program had also ordered the Translation Bureau, which manages interpreters for Parliament Hill, to take steps to protect the health and safety of federal interpreters by February 2023.
A statement from the Translation Bureau followed in March 2023 in which it laid out some of the measures implemented, which included a maximum of three hours of remote interpreting daily with no reduction in pay.
Hybrid Sessions – A Main Concern
The new six-hour shift rule does not take into account the probability of Members of Parliament joining sessions remotely, which they are still allowed to do, thereby increasing interpreter exposure to potential poor sound quality and risks to hearing during hybrid sessions.
At the same time, the Translation Bureau has been under pressure from the House of Commons to increase the number and availability of interpreters, and the AIIC believes the agency will do away with all the steps already taken to safeguard interpreters in order to enforce the new rules.
Some of the main concerns voiced by interpreters are related to “compressed and digitally modified sound” at a time when injuries and issues with remote participant sound quality have already limited interpretation services available to Parliament Hill.
Nicole Gagnon, AIIC member and advocacy lead for government interpreters in Canada said in a statement published on the association’s site that “These new rules throw caution to the wind and ignore the emerging science about the dangers of doing so. Both the Translation Bureau (TB) and the House of Commons administration that has demanded them know it.”
Since 2020, conference interpreters for Canada’s Parliament Hill, the United Nations, and the European Parliament have staged numerous protests around the issue of health risks imposed by the lack of “limits to exposure to potentially harmful remote audio.” The AIIC bulletin says Canada has fallen behind other organizations in addressing these concerns.
The new mandates surrounding interpreter’s shifts and how actual time at work is measured come into effect July 1st or September 1st for a year and an additional optional term of two years. Besides in-person shifts, for parliamentary interpreters the new rule would also mean the return of split shifts over a 13.5-hour day.
These rules might end up discouraging freelance interpreters to join the Parliament Hill corps, achieving the exact opposite of what the government sought to do in 2022 via a project led by Canada’s Board of Internal Economy (BOIE). The BOIE project allows interpreters to be approved for work on parliament sessions via a document validation process, without Translation Bureau accreditation.