Jen Dodds: Some agencies treat freelance sign language interpreters as cash cows (BSL)

Posted on May 20, 2014

Lately, there seems to have been a lot of tension between deaf people and BSL/English interpreters.

I think this is because of the cuts, which have put pressure on both groups of people; some of whom have taken it out on each other as they try to manage the stress of it all.

That’s really not great, but why is it happening?

To watch this article in BSL, signed by Jen, just click play below.

Well, for example, the cuts to Access to Work funding are a hot topic at the moment. Everyone knows about that one.

Lots of deaf people are struggling because they’ve had their AtW budgets reduced. We’ve been hearing about stuff like freelance interpreters’ wages being capped at £25 per hour maximum, or £35 per hour if the booking is done via an agency. This is making life difficult.

And then there’s the infamous 30 hour rule: Many deaf people who work full time and have AtW funding for 30 hours of interpreting support a week (or more) have been told that they now have to employ a full time salaried interpreter, which usually isn’t a suitable arrangement, for various reasons.

AtW have also been telling deaf people that their employers are now responsible for paying for co-working interpreters. Deaf people are becoming expensive, aren’t we?! I’d imagine many employers won’t be queueing up to give us jobs(!)

It’s certainly a difficult time for many.

However, the Government has just announced that they’re doing a review of how AtW affects deaf people – and during that time, the 30 hour rule is on hold. You can contribute in English or BSL (apparently); they basically want people to send them under 3,000 words before 20th June. There’s more information about that here.

Also, if you’re having problems with your AtW funding, this website has information about what you can do about it.

Going back to interpreters, some people question how they can charge fees like £30 per hour anyway. That sounds quite high, if you don’t think too hard about it. It’s not that simple, though.

Remember, we’re talking about freelance interpreters here – they don’t earn £30 every hour of every day! Also, freelancers have to pay for things like sick pay, holiday time, insurance, professional memberships, registration, training etc. It’s not like having a full time salaried job.

Actually, interpreters’ charges haven’t gone up much over time and are around the same as the national average wage. ASLI’s Fees and Salaries Report has more details about that, if you’re interested.

So, where are the big interpreting bills coming from?

Interpreter booking agencies!

Agencies often have big contracts, for example with the NHS – this makes it easier for hospitals (for example) to bring in interpreters, because the agencies are responsible for sorting everything out for them.

So, yes, agencies can make bookings run more smoothly, BUT some agencies book unqualified “interpreters”, because they are cheaper… which means more profit for the agency.

This is risky!

I’ve also noticed that some agencies charge rather high fees. If you book an interpreter for one day, for example, they will probably be paid about £200, or a bit more. If you book them through an agency, the agency will charge you extra for the admin work that they do (the phone calls they make to find and book an interpreter, etc).

Of course the person who did this admin work needs to be paid, but sometimes admin charges are massively high.

I asked some deaf people and interpreters if they could give me any examples of bad agency mark-ups that they knew about. What they told me made me wonder if interpreters are being treated as “cash cows” (things that make money for other people)!?

Sickeningly, I think they might be.

I was told lots of stories that blew me away. For example, I found out that some agencies regularly charge about £200 for medical appointments that are about 2 hours long, but actually pay the interpreters about £70 for their work. Nice profit there, eh?

In one situation that I was told about, a deaf person booked an interpreter directly to do a job at the company that they worked at. The interpreter agreed, but the company already had a contract with an interpreting agency, so they had to go through them (even though there was nothing for the agency to do because the booking had already been agreed).

The agency charged £150 per day for this, on top of the interpreter’s fee… simply because they had a contract with the company!

The most shocking story that I was told, though, was about someone who needed an interpreter in a personal support situation. What do you think one agency quoted for one interpreter for a couple of hours?


Quite remarkable, really.

You’d be having a laugh if you think an interpreter would be paid £1,000 for a little job like that – they’d be more likely to earn about £70. What a lovely big profit for the agency there.

So yes, unfortunately, it looks like interpreters are really good cash cows for some agencies.

All is not lost, though. Of course not all agencies are like that – many are good and transparent, and will tell you how much they’re paying the interpreter that you’ve booked and how much they’re charging you for admin – all perfectly reasonable.

Other agencies won’t tell you anything, though, and will deal with your booking as if it’s a secret mission.

If you want to avoid agencies and book an interpreter directly (hearing people can do this too, so tell your GP’s receptionist!), but you’re not sure how, there are several websites that can help you:

BSL Interpreters (South Central)
Conversant (Brighton)
East Midlands Interpreters
Kent Freelance Interpreters Group 
London BSL Interpreters 
North East of England BSL<>English Interpreters 
Surrey BSL Interpreters 
Sussex Interpreters Direct 
Yorkshire BSL Interpreters 

I’m sure there are more – please add them in the comments.

Jen Dodds is a Contributing Editor for The Limping Chicken. When she’s not looking after chickens or children, Jen can be found translating, proofreading and editing stuff over at Team HaDo Ltd ( On Twitter, Jen is @deafpower.

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