(Ottawa) The health and safety of parliamentary interpreters must come first, says Minister of Public Services and Procurement Helena Jaczek. She reacted on Tuesday to the file published by La Presse on the increase in work accidents among these employees since part of the parliamentary work takes place online.
“I was a doctor before I got into politics and I was shocked to hear some of the incidents that happened,” she said in an interview. I completely support the need to have the right headsets with mics and all the precautions that are necessary to avoid acoustic shock or any other injury. »
She intends to reiterate this message to the Translation Bureau, which was forced to act following a decision rendered under the Canada Labor Code in February. A few months earlier, a freelance interpreter had to be transported to the hospital following an acoustic shock which caused symptoms similar to those of a cerebral concussion.
Poor sound quality on digital platforms like Zoom is singled out by the International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC), which represents freelancers, and the Canadian Association of Professional Employees (CAPE), which represents interpreters permanent.
The proliferation of remote parliamentary work since the start of the pandemic has caused all sorts of problems for interpreters: tinnitus, nausea, migraines… They are now instructed to refuse to work if they consider that their working conditions are harmful to their health, which has led to the interruption and even the cancellation of parliamentary committee meetings.
However, CNA believes that the measures put in place since the decision rendered by the Labor Program are not sufficient. Headsets equipped with a microphone, previously approved by the Translation Bureau, are now mandatory for parliamentarians and witnesses who participate in proceedings virtually.
This solution would not be a panacea, since they are equipped with an electronic chip to compress the sound, which would partly cause the acoustic problems of the performers. The European Parliament has equipped its 705 MEPs with unidirectional floor microphones to remedy the problem.
CAPE waits before deciding. The union first wants to see the results of tests to be carried out by the National Research Council of Canada on audio-visual systems in committee rooms and the recommendations that will be made as part of a study by the University of Ottawa on the hearing health of performers.
The Translation Bureau should still review the measures already in place, according to Minister Jaczek.
AIIC also denounces a new employment contract recently presented to freelance interpreters. The Translation Bureau wants to return to normal working hours now that a majority of elected officials have returned to Parliament in person. The hours had been reduced for virtual parliamentary work without the remuneration of interpreters being reduced to better protect their hearing health. The problem is that parliamentary proceedings can always take place in a hybrid way and therefore interpreters risk always being exposed to potentially harmful sound. CAPE is also concerned that its members will end up with more hours of work.
The Minister recalled that no decision had yet been made. Will she give a directive to the Translation Bureau regarding working hours? “It’s not my role,” she asserted. My job is to say I want absolute protection for these workers, and then officials enforce it. »
For the Bloc Québécois, the solution to protect interpreters is simple: virtual participation in parliamentary proceedings should become the exception and not the rule. “There is no better way than to return in person,” said Bloc Québécois whip Claude DeBellefeuille. The party advocates a ratio of 70% of time in person and 30% of time remotely within the framework of the hybrid Parliament.
“It’s a lot on the Liberal side,” she laments. Their MPs need to understand that we wear our helmets or come back in person and that all parties, including the NDP MPs who remain in British Columbia, that everyone come back in person. »
“For us, interpreters do absolutely essential work. Without interpreters, we simply wouldn’t have a Parliament,” said New Democratic Party (NDP) House Leader Peter Julian.
“We have made improvements recently for equipment that is high-end and we also require that this equipment be worn,” he recalled.
The Conservative Party declined to comment. Translation Bureau officials are due to provide an update on Thursday on interpretation services at the House of Commons’ Board of Internal Economy.