Deaf Australia, last week, circulated a letter to members of the South Australian Deaf community. The letter attempted to help the community make sense of an ongoing dispute between Deaf Can Do (DCD) and the National Auslan Booking Service (NABS). For those not familiar with NABS it is a service funded by the Commonwealth Government to provide interpreters for deaf Auslan users at private medical appointments. DCD are the major supplier of Auslan interpreters in South Australia. The dispute is clearly a complicated one that involves money, disputed agreements and business rights. One interesting area that was highlighted in the Deaf Australia letter was the fact that only four interpreters in South Australia are registered with NABS. The rest apparently are registered with DCD. It is this issue that this article will focus on because for Deaf people and interpreters it is a question of choice.
The Deaf Australia letter claims that it is only in South Australia that interpreters do not register with NABS on a large scale. The letter offered no reason but leaves the question open as to why this is happening. It could be for any number of reasons. Perhaps DCD offer the best employment conditions so interpreters prefer to work for them. Perhaps the interpreters prefer to work for DCD because they find the NABS paperwork onerous. It is possible that they have a condition of employment with DCD that prohibits them working for other agencies. These reasons are purely speculative but one thing is clear – around Australia interpreters freely register with NABS but not in South Australia. It would seem DCD have a virtual monopoly on interpreter bookings in South Australia.
In response to the Deaf Australia letter DCD clarified the NABS issue in their publication, Deaf Notes. DCD state that they had written to NABS on the 9th June agreeing to waive all monies that are allegedly owed to DCD by NABS IF NABS 1)formally agree not to compete against Deaf Can Do Interpreting Services in South Australia; 2) refer all enquiries for non-medical bookings to Deaf Can Do; and 3) agrees to work with Deaf Can Do to eliminate the practice of freelance or casual interpreters ‘job shopping’ (i.e. cancelling on existing bookings to take a higher paid booking when one is offered).(Source: Deaf Can Do, Deaf Notes, Winter 2009)
DCD are saying to NABS that if anyone wants an interpreter for a job that is not a private medical appointment then they must refer them to DCD. Is this fair? Could it be seen as anti-competitive? One could argue that having to book interpreters through only one agency is limiting choice for the Deaf community. It could also be argued that by insisting that all non private medical interpreting jobs are referred to DCD it is akin to creating an interpreting monopoly. There are pros and cons of interpreter monopolies. First let us discuss the pros.
If all interpreting is booked at one agency it is easy for Deaf people to know where to book interpreters. It means that they know that the interpreter who they would prefer is at the agency. This would make it easier for them to obtain their preferred interpreter. Having interpreters based in one organisation also means it is easier to support them and ensure that they get the right training. Maintaining ethics and standards for interpreters could be easier having them based at one organisation.
Along with the pros there are a number of cons. Having all interpreting based at one agency means that agency can dictate the cost. With no competition the agency with the monopoly can charge as high as is legally allowable. If there are other agencies competing it means that prices have to remain competitive which can mean more access for Deaf people as it can make interpreting more affordable.
Another con of having only one agency is that it can also mean that quality and service become sloppy. One thing that competition does is keep a business on its toes. To ensure they retain business they present more professional and quality services. Without competition it is easy to become complacent and allow standards to drop. For interpreters it could mean they receive lower salaries. Why? Because if there is only one agency, that agency can dictate what interpreters are paid. Whereas if there is another agency it is likely to lead to the offering of competitive salary rates and this is an added incentive for interpreters to remain in the trade.
It is possible that DCD, as any business would do, are trying to protect their income source. They have asked NABS to formally agree not to set up a business in competition with them. Whether this is a good thing or not is debatable. Let’s look at Victoria as an example. In Victoria the Deaf community have a choice of agencies that they can choose from to book their interpreters. The agencies offer competitive rates and this is a good thing for the Deaf community. Indeed the agencies often work together referring jobs to each other when they cannot meet a booking. Interpreters are free to register with whatever agency they please including with NABS. The Victorian model ensures service to Deaf people is of the highest quality simply because if it is not consumers will do their business through a competing agency. Perhaps DCD should investigate the system in Victoria. It is an effective and efficient system.
DCD have asked NABS to assist them in eliminating what they call Job Shopping. This is where interpreters have accepted a job and later cancelled it because a higher paid job was offered. This is frustrating for the Deaf person who misses out on the booking. However, there are other issues that need to be considered. Job Shopping is seen as unethical and it often is. However, it is not a simple issue.
Interpreting is often seasonal. Most interpreters will tell you that school holidays and university holidays are periods when their income is very low. During this time many interpreters struggle to make ends meet. Sometimes they are in a situation where they must accept the higher paid jobs just so that they can pay their bills. Interpreters are largely self employed and are employed very much depending on the market at any given time.
In all of this it is important to remember that Deaf people and interpreters have rights. Deaf people should have the right to chose where and who they book their interpreters with. Interpreters should have the right to chose how they want to be employed, whether it is self employed, with one agency or with several. This should not be dictated by others. In the coming weeks there is to be a public meeting in South Australia to discuss the interpreter booking issues. We hope that by presenting this information it will help open and honest discussions. More importantly we hope it assists in some way to resolve the dispute between DCD and NABS with constructive input from Deaf people and the interpreter fraternity.