Freelance court interpreters have started the year off by enacting job action, calling for a decade-long wage increase and other benefits, which they say was their only option to better their work environments.
On a cold winter morning last week, freelancers and members of the Professional Court Interpreters of Ontario (PCIO) staged a rally outside the Brampton courthouse, armed with signs reading “skilled profession = skilled rate” and “justice for all except for interpreters.”
The signs are indicative of what current members feel about their relationship with the Ministry of the Attorney General (MAG).
“Our wages were raised in 2010; since then, we never had any increase in our wages. It’s 12 years now,” said Jaswinder Bedi, who has worked as a freelancer since 2010, interprets the Punjabi language group and is the leader of the PCIO.
Freelance interpreters are paid $30 per hour and aren’t government employees. They don’t qualify for any benefits like health coverage or pensions.
“The problem is not the hourly rate, it’s the salary, $25,000-$35,000 a year working with the ministry, unstable hours and the number of bookings and all that,” said interpreter Dave Duhre.
Freelancers can receive compensation for mileage, meals and accommodations according to policies and up to a certain number of kilometres travelled.
Members say current wages don’t reflect the importance or depth of their work and have written to the MAG, expressing their concerns.
“They don’t give us anything, no benefits. They keep us as independent contractors; right now, it’s been one-sided,” said Duhre.
The 700 ministry-accredited freelancers are separate from court staff interpreters, who did not take part in the job action.
“It is unfortunate that while Canada is growing and its standard of living is improving, and while income in most sectors is rising, court interpreter compensation has sadly not kept pace,” read the Dec. 7 letter from the PCIO.
As Bedi explains, freelance interpreters are accredited and must pass an exam before gaining semi- or full accreditation.
“We are professionals, highly qualified people; to be very proficient in two or three or four languages, it’s not an easy task,” he said.
As of Jan. 1, PCIO interpreters have invoiced their wages at $60 an hour, which they say is more in line with what other interpreters across the country are being paid.
The PCIO is a separate group from the Court Interpreters’ Association of Ontario, though they are dealing with similar grievances and will now be invoicing their services at $50 per hour, according to a letter sent on Dec. 15.
If any assignments are cancelled within five days or less, PCIO members will charge regular cancellation fees.
Another concern for the group is compensation for travel. Freelancers are only compensated for travelling over 80 kilometres per hour one way.
“We often have to travel during rush hour, and it might take an interpreter over two hours to reach the courthouse, even though the travelling distance may be under 80 km,” read the group’s letter.
Now, invoices will be based on “actual travel time” for round trips of one hour or more, regardless of distance.
Since the group is comprised of freelancers and not government employees, they can set their standards and the courts can accept them or not.
The group received a response from the ministry, indicating they’re doing research on current policies but haven’t decided on wages.
“The ministry is in the process of analyzing information collected from a variety of sources, as well as input received from court interpreters and other justice stakeholders. Once this analysis is complete, the ministry will determine next steps,” they said in response to the Brampton Guardian.
Bedi said that at first, courts didn’t accept the new wage and started cancelling work assignments, but now some interpreters are seeing their $60-per-hour assignments accepted with one-time approvals.
But not everything is being accepted, which Bedi has acknowledged may lead to court disruptions, though that is not PCIO’S intention.
Defence lawyer Michelle Johal, who often works at the Brampton courthouse, said she would be “unable” to do her job if clients or witnesses couldn’t access interpreters.
“The right to the assistance of an interpreter is not merely an administrative requirement. It is a constitutionally guaranteed right found in section 14 of the Charter. Courts have an obligation to ensure that this right is accorded to any person who requires it,” she said, though acknowledging that court staff interpreters are still available.
This issue can be especially volatile in Brampton, where the courthouse had the third-highest use of interpreters in the province after Toronto and Newmarket, according to the MAG.
There are policies in place to “allow for the use of third-party agency and/or unaccredited court interpreters in situations where no ministry-accredited court interpreter for a particular language is available,” said the ministry.