AB5: an Orwellian “Opportunity”

2+2=5As if this world wasn’t Orwellian enough already, with the effects of our 21st-century versions of the “1984” Ministries of Love, Peace, Plenty and Truth on the news every day, our California legislators have managed to come up with a new one: the Ministry of Opportunity, designed to “protect” freelancers by putting them out of business. I am talking of course about AB5, the new law forcing companies to reclassify freelancers as employees, which went into effect on January 1.

Yes, we get it; the law was designed specifically to make it harder for Uber and Lyft to skirt labor laws by treating their drivers, who are employees in all but name, as freelancers.  This makes sense for freelancers whose work requires them to be physically in California, which means that the company would not be able to simply hire someone who lives in a different state.

But translators (among many other freelance professions that operate on a similar model) and their clients are not bound by geographic location, since projects are assigned and delivered by email. So it’s as easy as “click send” to assign a translation to someone in Texas or the Netherlands who is not hampered by ridiculous laws and won’t expose them to the threat of future legal action.

Another issue is that most translators work for many different clients, since no single agency has enough projects to add up to a full-time job in most cases. So even if every agency would by some miracle agree to enter into employment contracts with its translators, translators would be getting a salary and benefits from 20 employers. Yes, I’m sure that will be excellent for the economy and not lead to higher prices at all. What an Opportunity all around.

The sponsor of the bill, assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego), has consistently responded to the firestorm of concern with a few standard phrases that offer empty reassurance, misrepresent the facts and deny the actual consequences experienced by actual people as a result of her meddling:

  •  “If you are a true independent proprietor, you can still operate as one.” Reassuring words, but the devil, as usual, is in the details. Note that you have to be a “true” independent proprietor, which, surprise, is subject to a long list of criteria that is so complex and confusing that many translation agencies have stopped working with California-based freelancers out of fear of inadvertently breaking the law and being held liable later.
  • Independent contracting jobs or freelance jobs are “not good jobs to begin with.” Really? The median annual income for translators is about $50,000, with those at the top making more than twice that. Yes, I see how forcing companies to hire people at minimum wage would be a much better opportunity for translators with their no-good 6-figure jobs.
  • And in response to one particular translator who described her own experience since this law went into effect: “I’m sorry and I feel that she does feel that way. But I don’t think it is true.” No, I’m sure all those cancelled contract notices are entirely imaginary.

Thank you, Ministry of Opportunity, for your great and marvelous works on behalf of us poor saps who thought we were doing just fine on our own terms. We now understand that the old notion of equality of opportunity is unfair, that allowing people to hire whoever they want or to work for whoever they want creates an unacceptable difference in outcome. True equality can only come about when the law stamps out every unfair opportunity. But not for lawmakers themselves, of course. Because some are more equal than others.

AB5. The name could not be more perfect and unintentionally prophetic. In the final bleak chapter of Orwell’s 1984, the government agent holds up four fingers and “corrects” Winston’s thinking until he truly believes he is seeing five. I’m grateful for the many advocacy groups who are taking action by filing lawsuits, pressuring their representatives and challenging this law in other ways. With them, I still see four.

This was my venting post; thanks for listening. In my next post I’ll talk about my personal experiences with this law, changes I’ve had to make and what we can do as translators to challenge this law.

4 thoughts on “AB5: an Orwellian “Opportunity”

  1. Something stinks to high heaven in California, and there has been a steady exodus of people from this state for many years now (listen to why Prepper Princess is moving in this rant https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UZ5QVvTVniY), and not only from the most expensive places like LA and San Francisco. I lived there for 19 years, 10 years in San Francisco and then 9 years in Petaluma and Santa Rosa. We finally moved to Virginia in 2001, where we lived for the next 17 years.
    My son moved from Virginia to LA about 10 years ago, but now he wants to escape from California too, and is looking to buy with his girlfriend a house in a cheaper state, maybe Tennessee, although he loves the weather, the beaches and the natural beauty of California (as did I.)
    But the cost of living, the traffic and insane rules and regulations have turned what used to be a state where people were moving in from other states and countries into a state that people are leaving now if they can.

    • Yes, sadly this is all true. California is beautiful and I have loved living here since I moved to the US in 1987, but the only reason we can still afford to live here is because a) my husband and I bought our house in 2002 right before house prices began to skyrocket, and b) we both have well-paying full-time jobs (well, pending AB5 that is). We live pretty simple lives but we would never be able to pay all our bills anymore on just one of our incomes. We used to, but that is how expensive everything has become. I personally know several people/families who have left California because it is just too hard to survive here. Our oldest son lives in LA, and his tiny apartment is $2,000/month — and even at this price we are thankful, because it’s a cute place in a nice neighborhood and everything else in this price range was in very unsafe neighborhoods. Our youngest son is still going to school and working part-time, but even with putting in all the hours he can, his pay barely covers his rent and food. Of course we tell him he can stay home for free while he’s going to school, but he says he’d rather be hungry and make it on his own so we have to respect that 🙂 But it’s a far cry from my early twenties when I paid a few hundred dollars for rent and cash for tuition because it was like $700/semester instead of $3,500 per quarter (thank you UCLA). So yeah, I totally understand why people are moving.

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