Outsourcing Gone Awry - A Campaign to Save Professional Audiovisual Translation in Finland - 2012

Presentation at Languages and the Media conference in Berlin, 22 November 2012
by Anna-Maija Ihander, Finland

My aim today is to tell you how the decision to outsource a third of all Finland's subtitlers from a commercial tv station to an ill reputed subtitling company led to a profession wide rebellion against the poor working conditions in the subtitling field. I'll start with some background.

For some time, audiovisual translators in Finland have been divided into two groups based on working conditions. Freelancers who work for Finland's national broadcasting company Yle and those who were recently outsourced from the commercially funded MTV Media broadcasting company were considered employees and were protected by a collective agreement, whereas translators working for translation agencies such as Broadcast Text International and SDI Media must usually become entrepreneurs.

The subtitlers who worked for Yle and MTV Media were covered by a collective agreement called Yhtyneet-sopimus, which was negotiated by the Radio and Television Employees’ Union in the 1980’s. This contract guarantees all subtitlers an equal, subtitle-based salary that accurately reflects their education.

The earnings of AV translators who work for subtitling agencies vary greatly. At most, these translators have been paid 70 per cent of the collective agreement rate, and at the lowest only 20 per cent. The fee is usually based on program minutes instead of subtitles and varies even within the same company.  It is difficult to compare the agency fees to those set in the collective agreement, because translators who work for agencies are typically entrepreneurs, although seldom by their own choice: it is common for the agencies to offer work to subtitlers on the condition, that they start their own business, saving the agency from paying any employer costs and making it harder for the subtitlers to unionize.  In many cases, the translators have no contact with each other, even though they might be subtitling the same television show.

There are only a few translation agencies in the Finnish market that specialize in AV translation, the largest ones being the two multinationals, Broadcast Text International and SDI Media Finland. Several smaller international companies provide Finnish AV translations as well, such as Softitler, Primetext and Scandinavian Text Service. These companies do not have an office in Finland and mainly specialize in DVD subtitles.

Up until 2010, the third largest company on the market was the Finnish owned Pre-Text. The company was known to pay subtitlers decent fees, although not collective agreement level fees, but it lost a bidding war to Broadcast Text in 2010 leaving its 60 subtitlers without work.

By coincidence, in the summer of 2009 two subtitlers had reached the breaking point with SDI Media who had once again lowered its salaries. They decided to start an online discussion forum and establish communications with other agency translators, who at that point were splintered all over the country. The biggest challenge was to find translators who, even though working for the same agency, were not even aware of each other. Some were contacted after gathering their names from the end credits of television shows.

Soon after Pre-Text had lost the bidding war to Broadcast Text, recruiting messages from the winning company started appearing on the mailing lists of several universities that offer language-based teaching. It seemed BT had no intention to even try to woo the experienced subtitlers from Pre-Text to come and work for them for less than half their former pay. The apparent goal was to recruit students straight out of school to fill the gaps. Students were quickly invited to join the online community to discuss the situation, which opened many eyes to the predicament the industry finds itself in. Forum activists also contacted universities that offer translation or other language teaching programs and sent subtitlers to speak to students about their work and the realities of the field.

A public information website www.av-kaantajat.fi was built around the forum in the course of the spring. On it, translators wrote and collected texts intended to give information to the public, translation students as well as their colleagues about audiovisual translating. During the first week of operation the site was accessed over 15 000 times, thanks to an active grapevine campaign on Facebook, mailing lists and online forums.

As a result of both translators and students demanding better working conditions, all three major translation agencies in Finland agreed to join negotiations initiated in March 2010 by the Union of Journalists (Journalistiliitto), Translation Industry Professionals (KAJ) and The Finnish Assiociation of Translators (SKTL). The aim of the negotiations was to put an end to the price trampling by creating a collective agreement which the translation companies would follow. Unfortunately, Broadcast Text withdrew from the negotiations right at the start stating that the very basis of the proposed agreement was "unrealistic". SDI Media hung along in the negotiations right up until the last stretch, but in the end, only the Finnish Pre-Text signed the contract.

Fast forward to September 2012.

On September 26th, the 110 subtitlers working as freelancer employees at MTV Media, a major commercial broadcasting company, received news that they would be outsourced to BTI International, a new subsidiary of Broadcast Text International, starting October 1st. The subtitlers were notified of this manouvre only four days before execution. The news came as a surprise and a shock, especially since the company they were being outsourced to was the company with the worst reputation in the field - for paying its subtitlers minimal wages, forcing them to become entrepreneurs instead of employees, claiming all copyrights to subtitles only to sell them for the company's profit and declining attempts to negotiate collective agreements.

In their briefing to the outsourced subtitlers, the CEO of BT in Finland, Paula Kaurismäki, and the Chief Financial Officer from Sweden, Henrik Wikrén, refused to say what would happen to the subtitlers' salaries after their collective agreement, carried from MTV Media, would expire in February, suggesting that there would be pay cuts. These fears were later proven right when BT came out with their offer: a monthly pay that at first glance wasn't remarkably lower than in the collective agreement, but at the same time the requirement for the amount of ready subtitles per day was almost double to before. Also, at the briefing the representative from the Journalist Union asked BT to enter negotiations about a new collective agreement. The request was repeated several times during the following weeks, but BT was not interested.

According to Finnish law, outsourced employees have a right to resign without notice during the first month after the deal – 98 of the 110 subtitlers chose to use that right. Since then, a further 3 subtitlers have resigned, raising the total to 101.

MTV Media is a prominent broadcasting company in Finland, and therefore the outsourcing was widely discussed in the media. After the initial news, we kept our situation in the headlines by contacting local newspapers and journalist friends, writing texts online and sharing them on social media. After two months of patient informing and online conversations, the results are starting to show in the audience's attitudes: for example in a Facebook group dedicated to "funny" mistakes in subtitles, instead of just laughing at the mistakes, many people are now asking about subtitlers' work and the conditions in which the translations have been made.

Thanks to the crisis with Pre-Text a couple of years earlier, we already had our forum and good contacts to other subtitlers. The first order of business was to let them know what had happened and ask for solidarity. Everyone realized that with BT having been left with a 98 subtitler shortage, we had a shot of trying to change things for the entire profession.

Out of solidarity to their colleagues, most subtitlers working for BT but also SDI Media, Primetext and Softitler decided to boycot all new subtitling assignments commissioned by MTV Media. Some went even further and joined the outsourced subtitlers in a complete ban of new subtitling assignments.

From early on, we also contacted the universities, informed teachers and students of the situation, and made clear that this was a chance of a lifetime, and that no one should accept new subtitling work for the time being. Both teachers and students ended up writing a public statement to support the subtitlers' fight. Also trade unions and subtitlers from the national broadcasting company Yle published their support for us.

A couple of weeks ago we started noticing that Primetext and Softitler were pushing new material to subtitlers. For example, Primetext announced they had claimed for themselves the deal for HBO's online service, which had previously been at Broadcast Text. It appeared that BT had lost or outsourced some of their "less important" clients to be commissioned at even lower prices by other subtitling companies. Before, many subtitlers would have been happy to subtitle the quality series that HBO produces, even on pathetic fees, but now, with the prices and impossibly tight schedules, few felt like taking on these assignments.

The pressure at BT's end must be getting unbearable. Apparently their recruiting campaign has failed to bring in enough professional subtitlers in Finland, since they have now started looking for Finnish translators through their subsidiary in Sweden, through a recruitment website in the USA and UK, and even through staffing agencies. Perhaps the most outrageous if not desperate attempt has been to contact text translators privately through proz.com to translate subtitles in Word document format. The example given in the announcement was in Swedish, so it is possible the translations are done from a first translation template without the original dialogue, let alone the video. At the same time, there is a beutiful text on BT's Finnish website titled Quality guarantee: "The quality of our subtitles is a matter of honour for us. We do our best to provide our clients with high quality subtitles that serve the viewers. We acknowledge our responsibility for cherishing the Finnish language. We offer our subtitlers the best tools so they can be successful in their work. Trained translators that pass our language test and test translation are trained to follow the company guidlines and use technical aids. We help new subtitlers by giving them detailed feedback." etc.

By now, MTV Media seems to have realized that BT has problems delivering material, and the company demanded BT to enter negotiations about a new agreement with the journalist union. These negotiations ended on Tuesday with the conclusion that the views of the two parties were too far away from each other. As a result, trade unions have now declared an overtime ban and application boycott against Broadcast Text. The situation remains open for the time being.

Our goal is to reach a universally binding collective agreement to Finland, forcing all companies to pay the same minimum wage to subtitlers. This would force the companies to compete on quality and their own profit margins instead of trampling translators' fees.

It hasn't been easy for subtitlers to sit on their hands for two months. Many had nothing to fall back on when they quit and the bank accounts are starting to be empty. There have been plenty of bleak moments, but in a way I wish all of you could at least once in your life feel this kind of sense of unity with your colleagues. We know that we are no longer just standing idle complaining, we are taking action to save our beloved profession. It feels pretty amazing.

Anna-Maija Ihander has worked as a freelance subtitler and translator for seven years and represents the audiovisual translators' section in The Finnish Association of Translators and Interpreters. She has a BA in English translation and interpreting from the University of Turku, Finland, and is also studying to become a musician.