Interpreter Economics of Cartels and Price Fixing – Unionise or Unite?

In the last week, the previous blog post on Interpreter Price Wars sent a small flurry of comments into the inbox. A few days later someone posted a query on a Sign Language Interpreters e-group regarding price fixing. A few days after that an interesting post appeared from Street Leverage entitled: Should Sign Language Interpreters Unionize? Here follows a response:
Price fixing was an accusation many held about interpreters when the profession had years where supply and demand was in our favour. With only a few hundred interpreters in the market there was plenty of work to go around and those that were interpreting were the ones the Deaf community had decided were good enough.
Enter years of public interest in the profession, enter greater accessibility to basic BSL qualifications and a lack of understanding of the need for interpreter standards and registration, enter the creation of mainstream qualifications i.e. the dreaded NVQ.  It has served neither the interpreting profession nor Deaf people well. For every good NVQ Interpreting course, with additional teaching and high standards, there are two more who churn out candidates at lower standards for profit or even to supply an interpreting agency linked to the owners of the course.
Enter an economic crisis, enter government cuts, enter outsourcing and bring on a smidgen of the Fear i.e. will I be able to cover my mortgage this month and should I just accept that job for less fees? A handful of agencies in these market conditions jumped on a chance to dramatically cut prices of suppliers i.e. interpreters. In this way they were acting as a implicit cartel. We now have a market where the effects of an Oligopoly have been stimulated. How? Think of the market where there are a few big agencies holding numerous contracts in one local area. Or one large agency holding what is effectively a sole provider contract for a government contract, whether this is locally or nationally.
Illegal price fixing and anti-competitive behaviour is hard to prove though not impossible. The solution for many suppliers is to join a union. In the UK think farmer’s milk prices and Tesco. The National Farmers Union helped to make their story a success. Beware bad press: the Telegraph reported at the time of those horrible farmers increasing prices.
So how do Interpreters resolve the current issues in their market? Unionise or not? For many having a union is unpopular for the same points Antonio details in his post for Street Leverage.
He concludes that perhaps other methods are more suitable and uses the example of the Writers Guild of America who have organised strikes repeatedly throughout their history causing in 2007-08 chaos for American TV. Sign Language Interpreters in the UK could feasibly do this. The easier and perhaps less organised way is for interpreters to simply not drop their fees. But can we do this without a greater unity?
He points out that in the US they have RID and other organisations. Here in the UK we have three organisations for interpreters or those who may work as interpreters (moot point) plus a registration body. There used to be a one membership body and one for registration. It was easier then and we were more co-ordinated as a profession. It would be easier if this were the case now. In the field of spoken language interpreting, especially public service interpreting, there are just too many organisations. Try looking up ITI, CIoL, SPSI, PIA, NUPIT alongside the Say No to ALS and No to Peanuts campaigns. There has been some great work done in getting questions discussed in parliament. Ultimately this work would be a lot more powerful were there less confusion and more unity. Strength in numbers as it were.
Antonio raises other questions which can be tailored for the UK:
How can we talk about unionising to increase awareness and an understanding of market forces in our profession?
What workshops do we need to provide to empower interpreters to run themselves as businesses earning reasonable fees and enabling them to stay in the profession?
How do we reach the increasing number of interpreters who are not part of any organisation and do not understand the effects their actions may have on the wider profession?
What other gaps in the profession are there that we need to consider and resolve?
If you have the answers or would like to respond please leave a comment below. There will be much more to say on this topic…