Charlie Bavington

Professional French to English Translator - Business and I.T.

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My goat’s been got again

November 16th, 2011 | Categories: agencies, business

A new, yet also old, outrage has come to my attention of late.

It’s new, inasmuch as the penny only really dropped yesterday that the delightful, relatively newly-created private-sector quasi-monopoly on court-related interpreting in the form of Applied Language Solutions’ love-in with our own glorious Ministry of Justice (sic) includes a further affront to my beliefs and sensibilities (apart from my disgust at state-sponsored private monopolies, that is, and the atrocious rates, which can effectively be sub-minimum wage under the wrong circumstances). It’s old, inasmuch as I’ve got some emails gathering cyberdust in the bottom of my inbox on a not dissimilar stunt being pulled by perennial faves Lionbridge.

What both of these fine firms appear to be rolling out is, in essence, a variant on paying to work. About this time last year, Lionbridge started a pilot where grateful freelancers could pay as little as €10 per month for access to projects in its Translation Workspace. ALS, meanwhile, are charging 100 quid a pop for an assessment without which, as I understand it, no work will be allocated. This will be an assessment for interpreters most of whom have already passed one to be on the National Register of Public Service Interpreters. So, basically a fee charged to allow access to work, dressed up to look like a selection process. Cunning.

Now, I appreciate that there are arguments that the Liox/ALS situation is not quite the same, but for the sake of interest, I would point out that it is, broadly speaking, illegal in the UK to charge a fee for finding people work when a fee is also charged to the end client (see Regulations 25 and 26 of the guidance on the conduct of employment agencies and businesses 2003). The rule even applies where the person seeking work is incorporated as a limited company, in other words, arrangements which are nominally B2B are covered by the same rules.

I confess that my initial reaction was to draw a parallel with slotting fees (when supermarkets charge producers a fee for stocking their stuff on their shelves), but on reflection, I think slotting fees are closer to one of the exceptions allowed by the legislation, when an intermediary can charge a fee for inclusion in a publication or directory from which the client makes the choice. Not unlike Proz or Translators Café or indeed the CIoL Find-a-Linguist service. It now seems to me that the kind of practices these two upstanding members of the translation industry are attempting to establish are, in fact, payment to find work for freelancers disguised as fees for services.

I daresay it’s all entirely legal under the letter of the law; after all, we would expect two such august organisations to have thoroughly checked the legality of any schemes they operate, would we not? That said, the regulations are intended to cover “contracts for services” and while watertight definitions are surprisingly hard to find (HMRC explicitly say they don’t have one for tax purposes; meanwhile translation is definitely defined as a service for VAT purposes in VAT notice 741), the information I have found implies strongly that “contracts for service” apply to the arrangements by which the self-employed are contracted to perform a service.

No doubt Liox and ALS would argue that the fee is not a matter of charging freelancers for finding projects for them, but is to cover the costs of the additional “services” provided to freelancers (who I suspect could manage just as well without them). There may well be such costs, but even if these fees are entirely legitimate, one could argue that the companies have chosen to implement such services presumably for the ultimate benefit of a) themselves and b) their own clients, so it seems a bit rich to make the suppliers bear the cost. Usual story of who has the balance of power, I guess, especially at the grubby, price-sensitive, bulk end of the market.

Whether or not there is a technical loophole here, I certainly have doubts that these fees are in keeping with the spirit of the law. We should be grateful, I suppose, that even if these two honourable and forward-thinking companies continue with this business model, the fragmented nature of the industry means there is, at the moment, plenty of work available elsewhere that we do not have to pay to gain access to.

  1. Rob Grayson
    November 16th, 2011 at 18:53
    Quote | #1

    …and the low barriers to entry mean that there is no shortage of suppliers at the bottom end of the market who are apparently only too happy to be taken in by this sort of nonsense!

  2. Louise
    April 2nd, 2012 at 12:26
    Quote | #2

    I’d be interested to know if anyone has actually failed the ALS test!

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