Market Solutions Part 2: Co-operatives

co-ops

The rise of outsourcing of interpreters, a triple dip economy, a lack of service user involvement and a battle of the more unscrupulous agencies fighting to supply the cheapest have left us with a situation akin to the recent horse meat found in burgers scandal.

Professional Interpreters and service users have been left out in the cold with little say in quality and standards, the NHS and the Ministry of Justice being the worst culprits by far. With little monitoring and a lack of standards written into the contracts, this leaves us with little quality control and a sour taste in our mouths.

The first solution to the current market proposed on this blog was the most important: protection of the title of Interpreter making it illegal for anyone to call themselves an interpreter unless they had reached the appropriate standards such as those upheld by the national registers: NRPSI for spoken language interpreters and NRCPD for sign language interpreters.

The next solution proposed is the greater use of co-operatives. They are a British invention, examples including, The Co-operative Group and John Lewis. They have been proven  to work time and time again. There are over 5,000 in the UK already and it is increasingly the business model of choice as an antidote to the economy.

For years we have already had various networks, national and regional, formal and informal, and we need these more than ever if we are to protect our profession.

At the most basic level interpreters already pass work to trusted colleagues and have done for years. Many interpreters get several calls a week for work which they can not accept due to full diaries or other commitments. Many refer callers to the directories on the ASLI or NRCPD websites. For Deaf people asking, many interpreters go the extra distance. We often recommend someone we know who would be good for the job and may have other advantages such as living nearby, works in a particular specialty or would have a good rapport with the person asking. Sometimes we may even send out a text to our local network to see if someone is free or ask other local ASLI members.

Another example of local networks are websites that advertise the names of interpreters, some complete with testimonials and bios. Examples are BSL Interpreters in London and Conversant in Brighton. Ones that are run by trusted interpreters and that only advertise the details of NRCPD Registered Sign Language Interpreters (RSLIs) are obviously better. There are some terrible examples of websites of people saying they are experienced in interpreting but they do not have the safeguards in place that come with registration such as the right qualifications, professional indemnity insurance, CRB checks, adherence to a Code of Conduct and being subject to a complaints procedure.

Co-operatives take this to the next level and there is talk of a few being set up in order to combat the economic position we are left in. These would especially suit interpreters covering small geographical areas who have been hit by the worst contracting decisions leaving experienced interpreters with a shortage of work in favour of the barely fluent and untrained so-called signers.

The Co-operative Group states that,

‘A co-operative is a group of people acting together to meet the common needs and aspirations of its members, sharing ownership and making decisions democratically. 

Co-operatives are not about making big profits for shareholders, but creating value for customers – this is what gives co-operatives a unique character, and influences our values and principles.’

In short, setting up such a business would involve getting together with colleagues, creating a business plan and legal structure, discussing the hiring of staff and whether you would also want to bid for contracts. The sky is the limit.

With local interpreters on the board and the potential to consult with service users, co-operatives could provide the answer to many of the issues of outsourcing. It is not just about protecting the jobs of professional interpreters but the standards long fought for and protecting consumers of interpreting services. Users of languages other than English are now left out, unable to request the interpreters they want and often too disempowered to be able to complain. Contracts are between service providers and agencies. If a service user requests a particular interpreter this request can only be passed to the agency, often to be ignored. If there is a complaint, this too may be passed to the agency who may not do anything to resolve the issue. As far as both service provider and agency are concerned, they sourced an ‘interpreter’, job done. Stretched personnel such as hospital administrators, nurses, court clerks or judges do not have time to chase up complaints, check on standards or monitor contracts. Commissioners and government departments are allowing contract holders to do their own monitoring leaving us wide open to scandalous wastes of money.

Co-operatives have the potential to provide some real advantages to working interpreters and users of interpreting services including the following:

  • Members are more in control of local work.
  • Service users could have greater power in requesting interpreters.
  • Contracts can be gained along with all the advantages that brings for interpreters and local communities.
  • Greater protection of interpreting standards.
  • Keeps local interpreters working locally without having to travel further distances.
  • Co-operatives are social enterprises and can reinvest in local community projects.
  • Mitigates economic risk.

As with anything, there are some disadvantages:

  • Just as in a new business, setting up a co-operative can be hard work and requires the work of all of its members.
  • There are associated start up costs which need to be agreed and financed, though these can be kept to a minimum.
  • Potential conflict between members.
  • Needs all members to participate and share workload.

It would be nice to think this blogpost has inspired more interpreters to move on from networks to establishing co-operatives. This would go some way to better guarantee that the interpreters working with Deaf people in all areas, and especially courts and health services, can continue to work in their desired profession and are delivering a greater quality of service sandwiched between their hands.

More tips on setting up a co-operative can be found at the following websites:

Co-operatives UK – What is a Co-operative?

Bectu – New Guidance on Setting up a Co-op

The Ecologist – How to Start a Co-operative in Five Easy Steps

The Guardian – How to set up a co-operative – part one

The Guardian – How to set up a co-operative – part two

The Guardian – How to set up a co-operative – part three

The Guardian – Live Q&A: Starting up a co-operative

Seeds for Change – Worker Co-operatives Code of Conduct