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OPINIONSocietyJuly 13, 2020

Our ethnic communities are not the government’s free translation service

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People from immigrant backgrounds often struggle to find work in New Zealand, despite their qualifications. So why is the Office of Ethnic Communities looking for people to do its work for free, asks former race relations commissioner Joris de Bres.

Last week, the Office of Ethnic Communities announced on Facebook that it was launching a Multilingual Information Network. It described the project as “a network of trusted community partners who work with OEC to translate and distribute important government information to New Zealand’s ethnic communities”.

I have argued for many years that public service departments have a responsibility to communicate their services to ethnic communities in their own languages, so I was delighted.

The post said “if you want to provide meaningful support to your community, we are currently accepting Expressions of Interest to join our network”. Then came the surprise: “the network is to consist of Volunteer Information Facilitators”.

Many people from ethnic communities have experienced being called on by their employer to provide translation or interpreting skills without any financial recognition. Often they are in lower paid roles. Their language skills are not compensated.

But for a government agency responsible for promoting the wellbeing of ethnic communities to use volunteers from those communities to carry out its core function – namely, communication with those communities – is novel to say the least.


Te reo speakers are not your free translation service

The responsibilities of the volunteer information facilitator, as described on the OEC website, are extraordinarily demanding. They include translating information provided by OEC, setting up their own process to test the accuracy of their translations, and distributing the information to community contacts, all within 24 hours of receiving the English version of it.

In addition they are asked to gather and provide feedback to OEC on the challenges facing their communities.

The reward for all this is that “volunteering with the network will provide Facilitators with valuable experience working alongside a government agency, as well as help develop their communication and leadership skills”. OEC is well aware of the difficulties people from ethnic communities can face in obtaining work despite being qualified, and they seem to be offering this as an opportunity to gain work experience.  But why not address the problem directly and pay them for the work?

The irony is that another branch of the same department (Internal Affairs) offers a professional translation service with an “in-house team of highly skilled linguists, project managers, graphic designers and administrators” and “an extensive database of freelance translators working for us, meaning there are very few languages we can’t work with”. It also has international quality standard accreditation. I imagine if you asked the service to translate, quality assure and distribute something within 24 hours it would either decline or charge a very high premium on top of its professional rates.

The Department of Internal Affairs is also co-leader (with MBIE) of the Language Assistance Services Programme, a cross-departmental initiative to improve access to public services and information to clients with limited English. Its aim is to create “a new, comprehensive service-delivery model to provide higher quality, more consistent, and better co-ordinated language assistance services”.

It is difficult to reconcile the new Information Facilitation Network with the role of the DIA Translation Service and the vision of the Language Assistance Services Programme. They should talk to each other. In any event, the new network is ill-conceived and exploitative. Of all government agencies, the Office of Ethnic Communities should pay proper rates for a professional service to communicate effectively with the communities it is required to serve and represent. The communication of “important government information” cannot be placed on the shoulders of unpaid volunteers.

Joris de Bres was New Zealand’s Race Relations Commissioner from 2002-2013.

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