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Federal government not protecting Parliament Hill interpreters: tribunal

OTTAWA — The federal government has been found in breach of the labour code for failing to protect Parliament Hill interpreters from workplace injuries. On Feb.
The Peace Tower is pictured on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023. Public Services and Procurement Canada has been found in breach of the federal labour code for failing to protect Parliament Hill interpreters from workplace injuries, and must now test committee-room audio systems and ensure no one is testifying without an appropriate headset. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

OTTAWA — The federal government has been found in breach of the labour code for failing to protect Parliament Hill interpreters from workplace injuries.

On Feb. 1, a health and safety officer with the federal Labour Program ruled in favour of the Canadian Association of Professional Employees. The union had argued the Translation Bureau was not adequately protecting employees who are working in hybrid settings.

“The employer did not ensure the protection of its employees with regard to health and safety by not ensuring that, during meetings with simultaneous interpretation, the work of interpretation would be done only when virtual participants wear a microphone that complies with ISO (regulatory) standards,” reads the French-language ruling.

Experts have told Parliament that the staff who translate meetings between English and French are being put at risk of injury because they are straining to hear some voices and are exposed to sudden, loud noises.

Last October, a parliamentary interpreter was sent to the hospital with acoustic shock during a Senate committee meeting in which the chair did not enforce rules requiring remote participants to wear headsets.

So many interpreters were placed on injury leave last year that the department hired contract workers to make up for the staff shortages.

The union filed a formal complaint a year ago, leading to a Jan. 30 inspection of the Translation Bureau’s offices and last week's ruling.

The tribunal gave Public Services and Procurement Canada until Monday to ensure committee witnesses are wearing the correct headset, and to report on steps taken by Feb. 15.

Meanwhile, the department has until March 1 to examine its equipment and report back to the tribunal.

“Random tests must be carried out in a real work situation by a qualified person, and the employer must implement the (resulting) recommendations in order to ensure that the system is safe for the auditory system of its employees,” reads a tribunal order, in French.

The department can appeal those orders within a month, but a spokeswoman suggested it will follow the ruling. 

"In collaboration with its partners, the Translation Bureau will follow these instructions, which are in line with efforts already in place to protect interpreters," Stéfanie Hamel wrote in an email.

"The number of health and safety incidents linked to sound quality has increased since the pandemic made virtual and hybrid meetings commonplace."

The department said it's acknowledged the issue and taken steps such as making sure a technician is always present and reducing working hours for virtual sittings without affecting interpreters' pay.

House and Senate committee chairs are supposed to ensure that those attending virtually, including both testifying witnesses and participating parliamentarians, are using a headset with a microphone wand.

Both chambers also reimburse remote witnesses for the purchase of an appropriate headset.

Yet the union's vice-president for translation roles says the issue has persisted because committee chairs are still letting guests, MPs and Senators participate when they ignore the rules.

"We want the health and safety of our members, the interpreters, to be protected, by following the directives," André Picotte said in an interview.

He was concerned by the labour tribunal's decision to order tests during sittings instead of examining the issue without exposing staff to possible risks.

"We are afraid that there will still be incidents where the interpreters will be wounded and their hearing is affected, and that's not acceptable," said Picotte, who has been a Translation Bureau interpreter since 1987.

He said the issue isn't people sitting in the Senate or Commons chambers, and there are generally few problems with MPs or Senators joining the chamber proceedings virtually.

But he said an issue persists with committee meetings when people participate remotely. Some have testified with substandard earbuds or even laptop microphones.

A Translation Bureau statement from March 2022 notes that "interpreters have the directive to interrupt the service if the working conditions endanger their health."

But Picotte said the onus has to be on Translation Bureau officials and not individual interpreters.

"It is intimidating. Those interpreters work with the MPs, so telling them to their face that we'll cease the services can create friction," he said.

"It is embarrassing for the interpreters."

Last week, the House procedure committee issued a report calling for hybrid sittings of Parliament to continue, in part to help MPs balance parliamentary, family and constituency duties.

The report called on House administration to investigate how other parliaments have maintained a lower injury rate among interpreters, examine the safety supports available and find ways to better recruit and retain interpreters.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 6, 2023.

Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press