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Debt-ridden translation agency says it can’t pay its freelancers — but still recruits them | CBC News

What was once one of the largest translation agencies in Canada says it’s so deep in tax debt it can’t pay hundreds of thousands of dollars owing to its freelance workers — but it is still soliciting them to take on new work.

And in another blow to its bottom line, embattled Able Translations lost one of its biggest clients earlier this year in the wake of revelations about its financial delinquency, and has closed its once-thriving headquarters in a business park west of Toronto.

The developments are just the latest in a string of bad news for a company that was once a darling of its industry, with contracts to provide interpreters and translators to hospitals, insurance firms, Fortune 500 companies and every level of government in Canada. 

But as a CBC News investigation revealed earlier this year, at some point in the last five years, Able Translations started racking up a global trail of debts and bouncing cheques, defaulting on court orders and breaking a litany of promises to pay its freelance workers. 

At least twice in recent months, the company told judges it was unable to pay debts to its freelancers — acknowledging it’s effectively insolvent. 

“We are not in a position to make any payments. We have to pay the government first,” the company’s operations manager said in a small-claims court hearing in July, explaining why it wouldn’t remit nearly $9,000 owed to a plaintiff.

That hasn’t stopped Able — which functions as an agency, subcontracting translation jobs to hundreds of freelancers — from trying to get people to do work for it.

Freelancer urges unpaid translators to join forces

The morning after the July hearing, the company sent out an email to some of its freelancers, seeking a Mandarin speaker to interpret at “meetings” in the Toronto area. It has sent at least a dozen similar emails since then, as recently as last Monday. CBC News obtained copies of the emails from some of those interpreters. 

“I’m very angry that people are being asked to work still,” said Dharminder Bhatia, a Punjabi, Hindi, Urdu and Russian interpreter who is owed more than $13,000 by Able Translations for work he did in 2018.

At the latest hearing in his lawsuit against the company, Able acknowledged the debt but submitted Canada Revenue Agency invoices for more than $600,000 in taxes it failed to pay.

Bhatia said he wishes there was better communication between all the translators Able owes money to and the potentially unwitting ones who the company is asking to take on new work.

“All the interpreters should unite and say no,” he said. “Where there is no unity, another person will always take advantage of us.”

Hospital network drops Able

As CBC’s investigation earlier this year revealed, Able Translations has been pursued by creditors around the world for nearly $1 million in unpaid invoices and tax debt. Many of those plaintiffs are immigrants to Canada who freelance as interpreters and translators, and many of them accuse the company of systematically and deliberately stiffing them on their invoices. 

As more evidence that Able was shortchanging freelancers surfaced through media reports, lawsuits and complaints from workers, a number of public agencies and private companies, including the Ontario and Alberta workplace insurance boards, jettisoned it as a vendor.

The latest big name to do so is the Toronto-based University Health Network, or UHN, one of the largest health-care centres in Canada. UHN told CBC News that it took steps to stop using Able as a provider of language services because it learned through media reports the company wasn’t paying the people it sub-contracted the work to.

That included people like Bhatia, who interpreted for patients during their appointments with physiotherapists, occupational therapists and other health-care professionals at one of UHN’s health clinics in southern Ontario.

‘We should not be doing business with companies that don’t pay their workers,’ said University Health Network vice-president Gillian Howard of the hospital’s decision to steer business away from Able Translations. (CBC)

“Obviously, we believe people should be paid for the work they do and paid promptly,” UHN vice-president of public affairs Gillian Howard said.

UHN chose a new supplier in a bidding process in the spring. Financial records show it had paid $2.4 million to Able between 2014 and 2017.

Company alleges ‘many errors’ 

Able has never directly answered questions from CBC News about its finances or business practices, except in a brief email last November from co-owner Annabelle Teixeira saying, “your research is incorrect in many details.”  

In that email, Teixeira promised to provide “further details for your review later this week,” but never did.

The Canada Revenue Agency is pursuing Able Translations as well as owners Annabelle Teixeira and her husband, Wilson. (Annabelle Teixeira/PremioDiaspora/Facebook)

However, the company did send a complaint to CBC management in July, saying that a CBC journalist was “making inferences on only a small picture of the company’s financial situation.”

The email said CBC’s reporting on Able has “exacerbated” the company’s financial position and said UHN’s decision to put out a call for bids on a new translation provider was something that had “been in discussions for the better part of two years” and Able didn’t lose the contract.

“In fact, Able chose not to participate in the bidding process because the contract would not have been lucrative,” the email said. It went on to say that CBC’s reporting on Able has “presented many errors.”

Reached by phone last month, Teixeira said, “I urge you not to call me again” and hung up.

CRA says it’s thwarted

Possibly Able’s biggest creditor is the Canada Revenue Agency. Court filings show the company owed the tax agency more than $600,000 as of September 2018, including more than half a million dollars in payroll deductions such as EI and CPP that it failed to remit, plus $94,000 in GST.

The CRA obtained court orders to seize company assets and slapped Able’s owners, Annabelle Teixeira and her husband, Wilson (who is no longer a director of the company), with a half-dozen tax liens on their home inn Mississauga, Ont., west of Toronto, and luxury cars owned by Wilson Teixeira.

Then last spring, the CRA took aim at Able again, applying to court to force the company and Annabelle Teixeira to open up its books and accounts after tax auditors made multiple requests, according to court filings.

Ms. Teixeira has not … made any effort to comply.– CRA court filing

“The respondents have not complied with the requests … and have not provided any of the requested material or required material to the agency,” the CRA says in court documents.

“Ms. Teixeira has not contacted the agency’s officers, nor has she made any effort to comply with the requests.”

But the CRA, too, says it’s been thwarted in its pursuit of the company. Days before the matter was to go before a judge in early April, a Department of Justice lawyer wrote the court, saying that “despite numerous attempts,” the government had not been able to serve documents on Able Translations as court rules require.

For Ana Belazelkoska, one of more than 50 translators CBC News has interviewed about their ordeals with the company, it’s all too familiar. A Macedonian interpreter from Mississauga, Belazelkoska says she’s sent “probably over 100 emails” to the company to try to get paid the roughly $900 she says she’s owed for work she did last year.

“Every time I call and I ask for somebody in charge of payment … They just say there’s no one I can connect you with, just email,” Belazelkoska said. “And then I email and never get a reply.

“They’re basically just screwing with you.” 

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