For 40 years the business of translating one language to another was controlled by the AIIC, a group of professional freelance translators who worked for governments, the United Nations and every business you could imagine. They set fair rates for their services and standards for the quality of their work, but weren’t technically employed by the AIIC. They were part of the gig economy and they made their livings as independent contractors.
In 1994 a group of businesses complained to the Federal Trade Commission arguing that freelance translators had no right to determine what fair pay was for themselves. They argued to the FTC that freelancers were independent businesses and that setting a minimum standard for their labor was the the same as operating a cartel. In the dull legalese of the day the FTC ruled in their favor saying, “We find that respondents price-fixing practices and market allocation rules are per se unlawful agreements in restraint of trade and a violation of the FTC Act.” After that companies no longer had to be held back by the tyranny of paying a living wage to their skilled workers. Instead, translators were forced to slash their prices against one another in an all out race to the bottom. The result was that today translators don’t make nearly what they once did.
No one predicted that self-employment would be the new employment standard for the millennium. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics the number of self-employed people has gone up by half since the ruling. As millions of people join the “sharing economy” or have to freelance their way into a job, the rights of freelancers are more important now than they ever were.
Being self-employed has some major advantages–creative control, setting your own hours and being your own boss–but there are also a lot of disadvantages, too. We pay twice the social security taxes–the so-called “self-employment tax” means we pay the employers share as well as our own–and we have no protections for minimum earnings. When you’re a freelancer your work is your commodity, and like all commodities, its value fluctuates with the market.
While there have been some brave attempts to organize freelancers since the FTC ruling. The Freelancer’s Union, whose founder Sarah Horowitz won a MacArthur Genius award, the sheer numbers of independent workers under its banner to negotiate for slightly better deals on health care. However barring that one incremental victory, no one advocates for freelancers. And no union can legally bargain collectively on our behalf without running afoul of the Federal Trade Commission.