Bolt and Uber protest language requirement



Ride-hailing services, led by Uber and Bolt, are demanding and end to language checks for drivers in Tallinn where the municipal police (MUPO) has refused hundreds of prospective taxi drivers for failure to speak a word of Estonian.

“We immediately turn away people who cannot speak any Estonian and suggest they return in a year after learning the language. There have been around 200 such cases,” said Meeli Hunt for MUPO. This concerns drivers who turned to MUPO for information or help with applications.

Tallinn’s municipal police have processed a total of 3,367 electronic service provider cards in the past 12 months and refused 511 applications. Of the latter, every third rejection was caused by insufficient language skills.

Others don’t care

“Unfortunately, service provider cards are also issued by other municipalities, and they don’t care about language proficiency – with the exception of Tartu. Therefore, it is possible that if a driver is turned down in Tallinn or Tartu, they will simply get the card somewhere else,” Hunt said.

Transportation network companies, like Bolt and Uber are demanding an end to language proficiency checks. The conflict flared on April 24 when ride-hailing platforms Taxify (now Bolt) and Uber had the sharing economy association send a letter to the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications. What it said in short was that the language requirement for drivers is eroding enterprise.

“The Tallinn Municipal Police Board has repeatedly refused to issue service provider cards, giving the applicant’s poor language skills as the reason,” the letter signed by head of the association Kristjan Vanaselja reads. Vanaselja is the CEO of Estonian startup GoWorkaBit. “NGO Estonian Sharing Economy finds that refusing to issue service provider cards on these grounds is in conflict with the public transportation act and the principle of freedom of speech.”

Vanaselja asks the ministry to explain to MUPO that such language checks are illegal. “We believe it imperative to intervene immediately,” he said.

MUPO’s patience ran out last fall after receiving numerous complaints of drivers who cannot speak the language. The board consulted with the language inspectorate and decided not to issue service provider cards to people who do not speak Estonian.

MUPO is not authorized to verify an applicant’s language proficiency.

“But if an applicant turns to the board and is unable to explain to the receptionist the reason of their visit, we find it impossible to issue them a service provider’s card,” Meeli Hunt explained. She said they have seen people who cannot speak Estonian, Finnish, Russian or English.

Impossible to check

The ministry and MUPO and the language inspectorate are looking at different acts. Neither the public transportation act nor local acts regulate the language proficiency of taxi drivers.

However, the language act and a relevant government regulation from 2011 require drivers of public transport vehicles to have language proficiency on the B1 level. The public transportation act classifieds taxi services as a form of public transport, which is why the language requirement also applies in case of taxi drivers.

The ministry finds that while MUPO should issue people who do not speak Estonian service provider cards, drivers who cannot speak the official language can be reported to the language inspectorate.

The latter agency would then summon the driver for a test and give them a year to learn necessary Estonian. This gives drivers who cannot speak Estonian another year in which they can continue to service clients.