Alberta interpreters struggle to get paid by Ontario company

A Mississauga-based translation company is coming under fire from interpreters in Alberta who say the firm takes too long to pay, or fails to pay them altogether.

Interpreters say AHS, WCB should reconsider using services of Able Translations

Belinda Chu says payments from Able Translations are often months late. (Provided)

A Mississauga-based translation company that was at the centre of dozens of complaints in Ontario is now coming under fire from interpreters in Alberta who say the firm takes too long to pay, or fails to pay them altogether.

CBC Edmonton has spoken to eight interpreters in Edmonton, Calgary and Red Deer who said Able Translations Ltd. either owes them money, took months to pay or only did so after they took legal action.

The interpreters told similar stories of making regular phone calls and sending numerous emails that they allege often went unanswered.

Sometimes I think I'm working as a volunteer.- Belinda Chu

Their correspondence shows they were often asked to re-submit billing information as they tried to get paid for outstanding amounts of up to $4,000.

On its website, Able Translations says it provides services using a team of qualified specialists who speak more than 150 languages and dialects. In Alberta, the company's services have been used by large organizations such as Alberta Health Services and the Workers' Compensation Board.

Edmontonian Belinda Chu, who filed a civil claim last month against Able Translations, summed up her experience as "frustrating" and "stressful."

For the first three years she worked for the company, she received payments on time. But by 2012, cheques would take up to five months to arrive, Chu said. In June, she filed a civil claim seeking overdue payments of $1,815. By the end of the month she was paid, she said.

"You just feel like you're stuck and you don't know what to do," said Chu, a Cantonese and Mandarin interpreter who still works for the company. "Sometimes I think I'm working as a volunteer."

Last fall, CBC News interviewed 28 freelance interpreters in Ontario who accused Able of a similar pattern of delayed or failed payment.

Able Translations did not respond to several requests from CBC Edmonton for comment. But in an interview last October responding to the Ontario allegations, Able president Wilson Teixeira said the complainants represent a very small portion of the firm's roster of 3,600 interpreters.
Wilson Teixeira, Able's president, says the complainants represent a very small portion of their roster of interpreters. (CBC)

He insisted many disputes come from billing errors or work that's poorly performed.

"Just like any other organization, sometimes we would have an issue and we do address those issues.  And we do it in a timely manner, as long as we have that communication open with our suppliers," Teixeira said at the time.

'Mental torture'

Raj Sandal, owner of Calgary-based Sandal Translation Services, eventually turned to the courts to get Able to pay him.

"I spent almost half of my energy and time just dealing with them for about $4,000," said Sandal. "To me it's mental torture more than financial."

Sandal, a former medical technician who specializes in medical and legal interpretation, said he interpreted for Able but also provided interpreters as a subcontractor. He's one of two Alberta subcontractors who told CBC News they had to pay their workers themselves while their own accounts went unpaid.

Sandal, who started working for Able in 2005, said his difficulties getting paid started in 2012. He said that in 2014, he spent nearly two years regularly emailing and phoning Able to settle overdue payments that were up to seven months late.

But in January 2016, he filed a claim for $4,406.25 after he said he was told there was no record of an agreement with his company.

He said that a month later, he received a cheque for $1,331.55. Shortly after that, the court ordered Able to pay most of the remaining claim amount, which it has done.
Raj Sandal says the time he spent trying to get paid took up precious family time. (Provided)

But Sandal said the costs go beyond financial.

"My time — I can't recover that — not from Able or the court," said the father of two daughters. "I could be working somewhere else or I could be spending quality time with my family."

Since 2014, Ontario's Ministry of Labour has received 70 complaints of non-payment from people who worked for Able. Alberta's Labour Ministry has received four.

But in both provinces freelance interpreters are considered independent contractors, which means they are not protected by provincial labour legislation.

Spokespeople in both ministries said they would have to turn to the courts for resolution.

The problem, said Sandal, is that most people don't have the knowledge or time to take legal action, especially for such small amounts..

"Regulation needs to be made," he said, urging the provincial government to make it a priority.

'We have no protection'

The former president of the Alberta Court Interpreters Association said she took her case to a pro bono (free) lawyer at the Calgary Courts Centre.

Sylvia Couper said she was told "it's a waste of time and energy for the amount owed to me is not significant, which is only close to $500."

"We have no protection," she said, adding she worries most about single mothers and newer immigrants who could be contracted by Able.

Last year, Couper wrote to both the Workers' Compensation Board and Alberta Health Services, which use Able's services, saying interpreters were not being treated fairly.
Sylvia Couper says she was not paid by Able for assignments she completed with AHS and the WCB. (Supplied)

In her correspondence, she outlined unpaid assignments she said she completed for the WCB and AHS. Couper said she didn't hear back.

The WCB told the CBC it has no record of receiving Couper's email, but is now following up. In a statement, it said it has dealt with "a small number of disputes" but worked with Able "to come to a quick resolution."

WCB encouraged interpreters experiencing payment issues to contact them and said it would soon be revisiting contracts with service providers such as Able. The organization said worker feedback is "an important consideration for us."

AHS said it does not have a contract with Able but has used its services on occasion in the Calgary Zone.

"We  understand and acknowledge the frustration this is causing some interpreters, but that this is an issue between the company and the interpreters," wrote spokesperson Kerry Williamson.

Couper said large entities should make their contracts contingent on the treatment of workers. She urged Able to pay interpreters monthly using direct deposit, with an email to confirm payment.

andrea.huncar@cbc.ca    @andreahuncar


Andrea Huncar


Andrea Huncar reports on human rights and justice. Contact her in confidence at andrea.huncar@cbc.ca