Since the arrival of COVID-19 in Europe and the slowdown in activity at the Institutions, demand for interpretation has plummeted. Conference interpreters are facing financial losses that, in some cases, represent up to 100% of their income. Because of the nature of their contractual relation with the Institutions, most Conference Interpreting Agents (ACIs) will not be eligible for national aid measures, even if their Member State of residence were to adopt support measures for this category of workers.
A time-line of the current dispute
At the end of March, the Directorates-General for Interpretation of the Commission (also covering the Council) and the Parliament decided to systematically cancel all daily ACI contracts at 60 days' notice. They made use of a contractual clause normally only used in exceptional circumstances to regulate interpreter supply to demand and fine-tune recruitment. The measure took effect from the end of May. It was coordinated by the two Directorates but trade unions, Staff Committees and ACI representatives were not consulted. Since then, the Institutions have continued progressively cancelling all ACI contracts on a week-by-week basis.
As there is currently hardly any recruitment occurring in the short or medium term either, this decision basically deprives a large number of ACIs of what would have been their only source of income for several months. It is especially onerous for those who work exclusively for the Institutions.
On the 26th of May 2020, the interpreting services of the European Parliament and the European Commission offered "special" or deferred contracts — essentially a one-off loan of approximately 1300 Euros — to their Conference Interpreting Agents to compensate for loss during the months of the pandemic (between 3 and 6 months). The ACI would receive a one-off payment in June and would, in exchange, have to work on dates that would be proposed later by the relevant interpreting service, by the end of 2020. The Directors of the services asserted that this would be their first and final offer and announced it directly to ACIs immediately after the meeting with the interpreters' Negotiating Delegation. On May 31st, after having examined the proposal, the AIIC Negotiating Delegation wrote a letter to the Heads of Service of the three services asking them to withdraw the proposal as it was considered not legally sound, i.e. contrary to the Convention (the collective Agreement signed between the Institutions and AIIC) and the case law.
No public entity worthy of that name would offer its long-time loyal collaborators, facing months without income, an advance payment for a service that will be provided at its convenience, some time before the end of 2020. This offer is the antithesis of solidarity and the procedure followed makes a mockery of social dialogue. It also contravenes the case law of the European Court of Justice. Hundreds of colleagues, both staff and ACIs, have expressed their outrage and disbelief. We call on the EU institutions to change course before the damage to the values the EU has always championed becomes irreversible.
ACIs are asking for what has already been adopted for the millions of European self-employed workers in need: an ad-hoc instrument to provide emergency support until the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is behind us.
In order to determine the parameters of such an instrument, ACIs demand that the European Institutions return to proper social dialogue to jointly find the necessary flexibility to reach a balanced solution that will illustrate that, in the words of the President of the European Commission Ursula Von der Leyen, "solidarity is at the very heart of Europe".