Putting It Into Context: Looking at the UK Interpreters’ Union Through an International Lens

Brett BestBrett Best is an English/ASL/BSL interpreter based in London and working globally. She is particularly interested in the development of the interpreting profession and establishing strong relationships between signed language interpreters and the Deaf community.

I am currently studying in the European Masters in Sign Language Interpreting (EUMASLI) program. This unique program is a joint endeavor between Heriot-Watt University in Scotland, the University of Applied Sciences Magdeburg-Stendal in Germany, and Humak University of Applied Sciences in Finland. Twenty-two professional interpreters from ten different countries meet for several block seminars in each of the host countries over two-and-a-half years. The program has a focus on interpreting theory, research, International Sign and the development of the interpreting profession. In a recent block seminar at Heriot-Watt University, Liz Scott Gibson lectured on the importance of sign language interpreters lobbying policy makers and how to do so effectively.

A pertinent take-home message was that alliances are important because they enable the ability to collectively put forth a more powerful voice in order to have perspectives on relevant issues heard. One example is a strong interpreter association. The room was full of anecdotes that quickly put this consideration into an international context. In Greece, for example, I learned that interpreters working in the community sector may wait for up to six months before being paid for services rendered, and the calls on the interpreter association to assert an improvement is routinely met with a response deflecting responsibility by asking that the request be directed to the European Forum of Sign Language Interpreters (EFSLI). Clearly, it is important that the national interpreter association have the power and the ability to enact change. This example especially served to remind me that when it comes to sign language interpreters’ working rights, the pressure to make a difference needs to be asserted collectively.

There are two BSL interpreters in the EUMASLI program. When discussion came around to the UK context, our international colleagues were surprised and a bit perplexed to learn that we have two different professional associations. I am a member of the Association of Sign Language Interpreters (ASLI); my BSL interpreter colleague in this program is a member of Visual Language Professionals (VLP). We are both, however, members of the National Union of British Sign Language Interpreters (NUBSLI). I quickly realised over the course of this session on sign language interpreters lobbying policy makers that NUBSLI is in many ways exactly what is needed for sign language interpreters in the UK. In the short time since it has been founded, it has already done a great deal toward politically asserting sign language interpreters’ working rights. One reason for its effectiveness may be that it is our two associations combined. NUBSLI is not an association, but it is the collective voice that we absolutely must have if we are to be heard by those making the decisions that affect our working conditions.

When my BSL colleague and I mentioned that we have a union, some interesting case stories emerged from around the globe. For example, there was a successful union initiative in the United States that organised Video Relay Service (VRS) interpreters in demanding a fair hourly rate, and a group of interpreters working for a television station in Spain called on the local interpreter association which then worked jointly with a trade union to successfully prevent unfavourable cuts at their work place. Unions, it seems, may have the metaphorical teeth that so many associations seem to be lacking, teeth that are needed to chew through the bureaucracy of political recognition and change.

As a sign language interpreter working in the UK, you need personal indemnity insurance, the support of colleagues, and opportunities to exchange ideas. For these things, join ASLI or VLP. As an interpreter, you also need fair and safe working terms and conditions and a reasonable rate of pay in order for the profession to remain financially viable. To help ensure this going forward, join NUBSLI. I really think that as NUBSLI continues to develop, it will become a shining international example of successful representation for sign language interpreters lobbying policy makers. Perhaps what the Greeks need is a union. I know that I am very grateful that we have one.


How becoming unionised leads to greater pay and job security

An excellent article from The Guardian on how the cleaners of New York’s hotel chains made sure they got a decent rate of pay:

Guardian – Poverty Pay isn’t Inevitable

Interpreters in the UK… Time to unionise. Join NUBSLI now:


Blog: Why Interpreters have joined Unite the Union

Nicky Evans writes that by having a union we are ensuring that deaf people are able to access fully qualified and suitably skilled professionals.


After the BDA’s hardly publicised report into AtW, one of their case studies lost their job. On a probationary period for six months without access to interpreters due to a lack of AtW funding, this Deaf person lost their job. Everyday interpreters are seeing examples on the ground of Deaf people not able to access interpreters or spending so much time trying to call their allocated AtW Advisor that they can not get on with their work.

The union is not just about interpreters and protecting our pay but ensuring that Deaf people can keep their jobs too. Are you a Deaf person that has been effected by the cuts and can provide evidence that the union can use? Contact them via http://www.nubsli.com.

Why join a Union? FAQs

As reported in the previous post NUBSLI has launched. The first meeting is Wednesday 25th June at 6.30pm at Unite the Union’s head office in London.

As many BSL interpreters need to join as possible. Here is why you should, and some answers to some queries you may have:

Whether employed or freelance will we actually be stronger in negotiations as a result of being in a union? If only 100 registered interpreters joined NUBSLI that would represent 10% of those on the register. That would mean a high percentage of a profession that are members of a union. This is one of NUBSLI’s stated aims. If the union has that much representation we will be harder for government to ignore.

What do I get out of being in a Union? Uniting with colleagues under a common banner where everyone recognises the importance of their work and being paid appropriately for it. Being a collective voice which is stronger and absolutely necessary in the face of government cuts. Union services also include help with personal injury claims, employment matters, wills, conveyancing and many other legal issues.

Why do we need a Union to negotiate? We have ASLI who does representational work for interpreters at various meetings with relevant parties. With the backing of a Union, we have much more legal and political clout. We actually cannot survive as interpreters without one and it is legally and politically the only way to ensure we can still work.

Does being in a union work? It did for the National Union of Farmers against the likes of Tesco when fighting for a decent price for milk. Unionised workers earn on average 8% more, you can access training opportunities to update your skills and get more job security.

I thought unions were for employees. Is it worth being in a union if you are freelance? It is for London’s black cab drivers. Unite has been helping them fight their cause since 1874. Unite has several taxi branches around the UK. Drivers have faced mass deregulation by parliament via the Law Commission and have used unions to fight against this. Union backing has ensured members have participated in lobby groups, meetings with legal and political representatives such as councillors and MPs and greater liaison with relevant parties such as disability groups.

Do I have to be politically aware or an activist? No. A union has a democratic structure with no hierarchy. Some members will be more politically active than others, a union needs those members for it to work. The more it has the better but not everyone has to be political.

But do I have to strike? Unions get a bad press. No. A strike is a last resort if negotiations fail. There are other options such as lobbying your MP. The media in this country is predominantly right wing and does not support unions. Unions have other roles apart from fighting for worker’s rights such as training,

What cost for a stronger voice and to continue in a career as an interpreter? The rates are £3.06 per week for enhanced rate, £2.91 basic rate, 58p for students, 50p if you are on leave or you work less than 10 hours per week. Even at the enhanced rate that’s only the price of a cup of coffee per week to help safeguard your career.

How do I join? You can join via Unite or at the NUBSLI website. When joining, please mention membership number: 20390369. For every member mentioning that number, Unite will donate £25 to NUBSLI which will contribute towards the running of the union. NUBSLI is a branch of Unite and the branch number is LE/7380L.

Trade Unions: Know your facts from your fiction


Union for Sign Language Interpreters Launched

A union for sign language interpreters was mooted many moons ago under a Chair of ASLI who was interested at the time. It was an unpopular idea with members and many at the time wanted to keep ASLI as the professional Association for BSL interpreters providing mentoring, training and a support network amongst other things.

The political landscape and the interpreting market have changed radically since then. From 2010 outsourcing has increased in scale and has been damaging to interpreters and the Deaf community they serve. This has been the main subject of many posts on this blog.

I’ve been a Unite member since the launch of NUPIT, the National Union of Professional Interpreters and Translators. Although many of the issues we face are similar to those of spoken language interpreters, there is enough of a difference in this current climate to have warranted a union specifically for sign language interpreters. And therefore NUBSLI was born, the National Union of British Sign Language Interpreters.

External representation is a large bulk of the work that ASLI has done recently given the membership’s concerns about the future of their work. It is frightening not only to experience cuts to terms and conditions but also to see the least experienced, and cheaper interpreters, being employed to do the highest risk jobs. All of which is doubly shocking when you consider the effects to the Deaf community, many of whom are our family and friends.

I have attended frustrating meetings with government as an ASLI representative and I believe we need a stronger voice with the weight of the politically aware behind us: the campaign officers of Unite.

In addition to this ASLI has tried to stay out of the Deaf community’s way in not talking about issues that the Deaf community need to be leading on. When it comes to Access to Work this is a red herring. There have been UKCOD meetings about the AtW changes that have included representatives from the following organisations:

SignHealth, Clarion, Action on Deafness, NDCS, BDA, RAD, BID, AOHL, Sense and NRCPD.

Any interpreter reading that list may note that in the talks about interpreting, of the ten organisations mentioned no less than six have an interest in interpreting as providers of interpreting services. The profits of which will be potentially funding their organisations. One is the register of interpreters, NRCPD. The other three, as Deaf organisations, will be heavy users of interpreters and therefore this is a cost to them.

What I am getting at is that there is no clear voice from interpreters in either UKCoD meetings or meetings with government at ministerial level. It leaves me cold that the future of my profession is being potentially decided by those that perhaps do not fully understand interpreting (the length and cost of training, cost of staying in the profession, day to day challenges, costs of sick/adoption/maternity/carers leave, health and safety concerns) and worse still, have a vested interest in ensuring interpreters are paid less.

The more BSL interpreters that are part of the union the stronger our voice will become. The more Deaf interpreters that are part of the union the stronger our voice will become. The more Deaf people that support the union, the more likely it is that quality interpreter provision will still be accessible after any future AtW changes.

The first NUBSLI meeting is next week on Wednesday 25th June 6.30pm at Unite head office in London. Will you be joining in?

More info about why you should join NUBSLI

Unite the Union

Next post: Why join a Union? FAQs