The Gig Economy is rarely out of the news these days, and this week we take a look at how this hot topic relates to the translation sector. The key suppliers to the translation industry are of course translators themselves, so how relevant is the Gig Economy debate to freelancers?
Ian:How would you define the relationship between translators and translation companies? Is it analogous to the familiar Uber or Deliveroo scenarios that have come to define the gig economy?
Tim:It’s a freelance relationship and translators are generally employed on a project by project basis, so yes there are definitely parallels with the Uber scenario. We work with a pool of about 700 translators, many of whom work with us month in, month out. At the top end there are translators for whom we represent as much as a third of their income, and at the bottom there are translators who work for us a couple of times a year. Regardless of the amount of work done for us, each translator’s relationship with us is on a freelance basis.
Ian:Has the increased awareness of gig employment and zero hour contracts had an impact on the translation industry’s relationships with its freelance employees?
Tim:Translation is the original gig economy, and that has suited translators, agencies and the buyers of translation services for decades, way before the likes of Uber and Deliveroo emerged. It’s a relatively easy way for people to live anywhere in the world and earn a reasonably good living based on their language skills, and that’s true now more than ever due to the evolution of technology. It’s also suited translation companies because the vast majority can’t support in-house translators. In a typical month a company like ours can deal with as many as 100 different language combinations so it doesn’t make sense to have permanent staff waiting for a particular language combination and specialism to be requested.
If there’s concern about zero hour contract conditions for people who work in supermarkets, there should also be the same concerns for workers in the translation business.
The emergence of a much wider gig economy means there is greater scrutiny of this employment scenario, and workers who are affected by zero hour contracts are rightly concerned about fair treatment including things like holiday pay, health insurance and sick leave. This sort of concern has never been addressed properly by the translation industry, and it’s inevitable that if there’s concern about zero hour contract conditions for people who work in supermarkets, there should also be the same concerns for workers in the translation business. As buyers of translation services from freelance translators, I think it is likely translation companies will come under greater scrutiny as well and will be questioned about fair wages, holiday allowance and healthcare coverage.
Ian:How are translators treated generally within the industry?
Tim:Some of the very large translation companies treat translators as a commodity. Often payments are withheld from translators because the companies haven’t been paid yet by their customer, and because they’re such big players they feel that they can pass that cashflow pressure down to their suppliers. Other translation companies seem to have bureaucratic or chaotic payment processes which prevent them from paying on time. I won’t name names but if for example you go on to the BlueBoard at proz.com and look at the ratings of some of the larger translation companies you’ll see that some have a pretty shoddy reputation amongst the freelance translation community. This is primarily because they’re very bad at paying people. Of course this is not limited to the translation sector and led to the “Freelance isn’t Free” Act in New York a couple of years ago.
People have mortgages and families to care for, so to say “we’re not paying you because we want to optimise our corporate cashflow” is a lousy way to treat people and I believe this will come back and bite those who behave that way. We’ve gone to great lengths when it comes to payment to ensure that translators get paid very quickly, usually within a day, which is faster than anyone else. Our contractual relationship is with the freelance translator and the fact that we may not have been paid yet by our customer is not the translator’s problem. We should never try and make it his problem.
Translators already have to worry about whether they have enough work to see them through a period of time and whether they’re being paid a high enough rate per word. We should not also be forcing them to go through a convoluted process to make sure they get paid.</>
It’s not only the larger players who are slow payers. Smaller companies sometimes take cash out of the business before paying their freelance translators, and ultimately those companies may go to the wall, creating another risk for freelancers. Translators already have to worry about whether they have enough work to see them through a period of time and whether they’re being paid a high enough rate per word. We should not also be forcing them to go through a convoluted process to make sure they get paid.
Ian:There are new laws being enacted in different parts of the world in response to the increasing number of gig economy workers, California being the obvious recent example. When do you see this legislation impacting the translation industry?
Tim:These legal changes are perhaps an inflection point, after which freelance translators could even be seen as employees. There may be a determination that translators who are working for companies more than xx% of their time will have to be granted holiday pay and sick leave cover, etc etc. One of the things then that you can imagine might be required of translation agencies employing freelancers in the future is that they provide holiday pay and sick cover, which will mean a fundamental change in the way that freelance translators are paid.
Ian:I’d rather imagined that within the EU regulations related to workers’ rights that had already been enacted in the past few decades would have had an impact on the way freelancers generally and freelance translators specifically are paid, is that not the case?
Tim:In fact EU employment regulations haven’t touched freelance translators at all, but I anticipate that at some stage their employment rights will receive legislative attention. Philosophically our position has always been that we regard translators as an absolutely essential part of our business and we have to pay more than lip service to this. It’s one of our core values. It’s not enough to just talk about them fondly, we have to treat translators with respect. We have to pay them in a timely manner and we have to make sure that they are paid fairly.
There are a lot of challenges for freelance translators and the best of them are lucky enough to be able to pick and choose who they work for, and of course we want to make sure that we’re their favourite agency to work with. We want to make sure that when they work on our projects, they go the extra mile.
I want to feel proud of my company, I want our team to feel proud. How can you feel proud of your company if you don’t treat people right? Our position is that it’s not just the right ethical stance to treat our translators well but that it makes good business sense too. There are a lot of challenges for freelance translators and the best of them are lucky enough to be able to pick and choose who they work for, and of course we want to make sure that we’re their favourite agency to work with. We want to make sure that when they work on our projects, they go the extra mile. So whatever happens with the gig economy we’re positioning ourselves so that we’re a company that the translators want to work for, which puts us in a good position for whatever legislative or regulatory requirements come down the road.
Ian:As you pointed out there is more translation work than there is a supply of translators, and it seems obvious that translators are in a strong position to be able to turn down work from companies that they deem to be unreasonable in their expectations or that pay less than what’s considered fair.
Tim:That very much depends on the language combination. We have people applying to work with us as translators every single day. There’s a very significant difference for example between the constant stream of Arabic translators coming to us looking for work and the small number of German translators that approach us. German is only spoken in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland so there’s a much tighter supply base whereas Arabic is spoken much more widely and generally in markets with a much lower per capita GDP and relatively high unemployment rates.
Ian:What impact has the vast increase in content requirements in the service of ecommerce had on the relationship between translation companies and translators?
Tim:The answer is that there’s more work for everyone but the supply of human translators can’t kept up with that demand. We don’t have the same elasticity of supply we once enjoyed; there isn’t a factory available that can “produce” more translators just as we can’t “produce” more doctors or policemen.
But unlike medicine or policing, the translation industry has technology at its disposal that is starting to transform the landscape – machine translation. While the volume goes up exponentially the supply of translators doesn’t, and MT is increasingly taking up this slack.
Ian:My assumption is that you have certain translators you rely heavily on (and vice versa) in your biggest markets and also others in very small markets who you also rely on albeit more infrequently, so that when you have those jobs in their languages you know you can utilise them.
Tim:The main language combinations for us are English into German and German into English, and French, Italian and Spanish are very big source languages for us. Japanese, Korean and traditional Chinese are also now much bigger for us than they were ten years ago. For our main language combinations we have been working with some translators for more than 20 years, and without those translators obviously we don’t have a business so they’re incredibly important to us. Perhaps it’s stating the blindingly obvious, but finding skilled, reliable translators isn’t easy.
A key part of our business planning to improve our business on a month by month basis is a focus on attracting and retaining good translators, and an essential way to keep them working for us is by treating them well, just as you would with anyone you want to keep working with you.