Public agencies paid millions to national translation firm that stiffs its workers
As lawsuits piled up, Able Translations still brought in $4.7M from hospitals, governments, workers comp
Government agencies have given millions of dollars in business to one of Canada's biggest translation firms in recent years in the face of mounting evidence the company was shortchanging its contract workers — and, in some cases, despite warnings from their own staff.
From 2014 to 2017, federal, provincial and municipal governments and agencies spent at least $4.7 million on language services from Able Translations, public records show — everything from interpretation at legal proceedings to translation of medical records.
Over the same period, the Mississauga, Ont.-based company weathered multiple news stories about its non-payment of freelancers, coupled with a mounting toll of lawsuits, largely from those very workers.
The cautionary signs came as early as 2013 that Able Translations was starting to stonewall the freelance translators and interpreters to whom it parcels out work.
But a number of those agencies only cut ties with the company last year, while some continue to use its services even as it's on the brink, according to a CBC investigation into the firm's financial delinquency.
They can see by their own eye that [Able] hurt workers, but they don't care- Sunny Zhang, Mandarin interpreter
"That's the ridiculous part of it," said Sunny Zhang, a Mandarin interpreter and translator from Calgary who won a court judgment and is owed $8,300.
Most of Zhang's unpaid invoices to Able Translations are for work she did for public-sector clients such as Ontario's Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB), the Alberta Workers' Compensation Board (WCB) and Alberta Health Services.
Government agencies "can see by their own eye that [Able] hurt workers, but they don't care."
'Keeps coming up'
As CBC revealed earlier this week, Able Translations owes more than $1 million to dozens of translators and other suppliers from as far afield as Korea and Egypt, as well as to the taxman. It has been sued 245 times in the last five years by translators and other creditors — among them, the Canada Revenue Agency, which obtained seizure orders for the company's assets and put liens on the president's home and luxury cars.
While most of those developments arose out of the public eye, a number of the biggest public agencies using Able had their own indications all was not well, judging from more than a thousand pages of records CBC obtained under access-to-information laws.
"We are hearing more and more interpreter concerns regarding not being paid for their services. This issue keeps coming up," wrote Fahreen Rayani, an Alberta WCB employee, to Able's vice-president and co-owner, Annabelle Teixeira, on Feb. 17, 2016.
The previous autumn, CBC News and the Toronto Star had published stories about workers' troubles in getting paid by Able. The stories were cited in complaint emails a number of interpreters sent to the WCB.
"They are notorious for late payments," one wrote. "I have sent numerous letters of complaint regarding pay … I have never received a response to my emails."
Able provided the WCB with a variety of explanations for why interpreters weren't getting their money. Vice-president Teixeira wrote that sometimes, Able would mail out a cheque, but an interpreter just wouldn't cash it. Other times, "either Canada Post does not deliver it or the interpreter moves and does not inform us." In yet other cases, interpreters hadn't invoiced yet, Teixeira said.
She attributed at least one non-payment to "irregularities" with a cheque, and said that generally, mail is slow getting to Alberta from Ontario.
In total, there were at least 10 complaints to the Alberta WCB about Able's payment practices by fall 2016, when the WCB decided to extend Able's contract to provide language services by six months.
'Cheques have bounced'
Still more complaints arrived through the end of 2016 and into the new year, including one in February 2017 from a group of interpreters who stated, among several grievances, that "the company cheques have bounced."
Teixeira responded at length to the Alberta WCB, concluding, "Finally, we have never had a cheque returned NSF" (non-sufficient funds).
In fact, that was not true. Court records from a lawsuit against Able in Ontario show that nine months earlier, it had bounced a cheque to a Mandarin interpreter from Toronto.
Despite all the complaints, at the end of March 2017, the WCB again extended Able's contract — along with those of its five other translation suppliers — this time by two years.
The organization said in a statement to CBC News that it has "significant demand" for translators for its clients, who often develop "long-standing, trusting relationships" with their interpreters, all of which weighed on the decision about whether to keep using Able's services.
The WCB added that Able was "responsive" when presented with translators' complaints about not getting paid, "so we chose to work on resolving complaints while allowing their contractors to continue working with our clients."
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The public agency said its global budget for language services is about $1.4 million a year, and of that, Able Translations' slice ranged from as high as 65 per cent in 2016 to a more typical 20 per cent since then.
That is, until it prematurely terminated its agreement with Able Translations last May. "We determined they could not consistently deliver on their commitment to ensure their contractors were paid promptly," the WCB statement said.
Ontario board had warnings, too
Ontario's workers compensation agency, meanwhile, was aware of potential payment issues at Able as early as October 2013, when a translator wrote in. "Able Translations have not been paying for my services since May," they said. "I have been sending emails asking for payments and they have ignored and not respond[ed] to my emails. I am not the only service provider that they are not paying."
The WSIB's manager of language services then emailed a colleague: "I spoke to the owner and president of Able Translations and he will investigate. I don't believe there is anything more for us to do … It is an internal issue for them, not us."
A handful more complaints trickled in in 2014 and 2015. About five months later, in April 2016, the WSIB extended its contract with Able Translations for two more years.
Then, in early 2017, another news report came out about Able's workers struggling to get paid. It prompted a senior WSIB manager to suggest "we should be cancelling the contract," internal emails show.
But that didn't happen, at least not right away. The WSIB finally terminated its agreement last April. All told, from 2014 through the end of 2017, it gave $448,892 in business to Able Translations.
"We expect all of our vendors to conduct business in an ethical manner, which includes fair treatment of employees and proper payment practices," the WSIB said in a statement.
Hospital looking elsewhere
CBC emailed Able Translations a list of questions about its business relationships and practices in November. Teixeira replied that "your research is incorrect in many details. I will provide further details for your review later this week."
Despite weekly reminder emails and calls, she never did.
Over the years, the company has had contracts with numerous public bodies, including the Public Prosecution Service of Canada, Employment and Social Development Canada, Alberta Employment and Immigration and Ontario's Finance and Natural Resources ministries, but no longer.
It still does business with the University Health Network (UHN) in Toronto, one of the country's largest hospital and health research organizations.
Access-to-information records show UHN paid $2.4 million to Able between 2014 and 2017 for interpretation services, largely at its network of workplace injury clinics.
UHN spokesperson Gillian Howard said the health organization recognizes "we should not be doing business with companies that don't pay their workers," and is diverting as much business as it can to other firms.
But she said UHN needs access to interpreters in more than 100 languages, and "there aren't lots of companies that provide the breadth and depth of translation that Able does."
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