Language requirements for Bolts and Wolts


PHOTO: Sille Annuk

The Language Inspectorate is putting pressure of decision-makers for legislation to be updated in order to protect the Estonian language by requiring rental labor to comply with language requirements.

The requirement to speak Estonian is virtually nonexistent when it comes to taxi and ridesharing drivers. Estonian skills are largely overlooked also regarding food couriers, cashiers and bus drivers – front-line staff in almost all fields where foreign labor is active. Taxi drivers often do not understand when you ask for an additional stop nor couriers directions to your location.

Director General of the Language Inspectorate Ilmar Tomusk says that problems begin with the question of who is responsible for compliance.

Things are clear at first glance. The Language Act and Consumer Protection Act are explicit in stating that the consumer has the right to information and service in Estonian. That is why employees who speak directly to clients must speak enough Estonian to be able to successfully perform their tasks. The required proficiency level for couriers is A2, while taxi drivers and cashiers must have the B1 proficiency.

Rental labor requirements

The government’s language requirements regulation is equally clear in stipulating that the employer is responsible for making sure employees who are required to speak the official language do.

“The labor market has a great number of rental labor providers supplying hotels, restaurants and supermarket chains with staff. Such workers are employed by the rental labor company that can be registered abroad. We cannot hold a foreign company accountable for what their employees do here,” Tomusk explained.

Hence the counteroffensive. The inspectorate has made a proposal to the Ministry of Education and Research to complement the regulation by requiring employers who are already responsible for their employees’ language proficiency to also vouch for the language skills of rental labor doing the same work.

“A client does not have to know whether they are being helped by a salaried worker or a rental worker and are entitled to service in Estonian either way,” Tomusk said.

The situation is similar for ridesharing taxis. The Language Act requires a taxi driver to have B1 Estonian proficiency. Tomusk said it is regrettable the taxi drivers’ language requirement was abolished with the 2016 Public Transport Act, meaning that drivers can start offering the service without speaking the official language. Their language proficiency only becomes an issue if a client files a complaint.

The most peculiar aspect is that Bolt maintains they are an information society services company and not a taxi firm. “When a taxi looks like a taxi, operates like a taxi and has a driver who looks like and works as a taxi driver, they should be able to offer the service in accordance with requirements irrespective of what someone calls it based on the level of IT solutions involved,” Tomusk said.

Speaking the official language is especially important in traffic because a driver must be able to read temporary traffic control devices, call emergency services in case of an accident, solve real life situations that cannot be solved using a mobile app – if only learning about alternative routes or other unexpected situations.

The inspectorate finds that the taxi drivers’ language requirement needs to be restored in the Public Transport Act and that responsibility for the qualification of the service provider should reside with the taxi company or platform drivers use as well as drivers themselves.

“Offering a service using a technical aid does not change the nature of the service. In the case of a taxi driver who does not speak the language, it is the client who must emergence unscathed. It is not right,” Tomusk said.

Apps in Estonian

Sandra Särav, public policy manager for Bolt, said their application is just fine, commenting on the inspectorate’s proposals. “As concerns the situation today, according to the Language Act and the Consumer Protection Act, the consumer has the right to service in Estonian provided they do not agree to service in another language. The service offered by Bolt is an application that can be used to hail a Bolt car. The application can be used in Estonian.

Bolt’s customer support and other taxi services are available in Estonian through the app.

“There is no need to talk to the driver because all the necessary information can be found in the application. That is why our platform also caters to hearing impaired drivers, and our clients are absolutely fine with that,” Särav said.

Bolt’s representative said that drivers who use their application include a lot of people who speak a foreign language and who use the application as their main or complementary source of income.

“We fully support Estonian studies of everyone living in the country – including Bolt and Wolt drivers. And when it comes to language training, practice is everything. It is a sensible way for foreign students, who spend the rest of their day traveling between their dorm room and lecture halls, to learn the language – practicing with the help of people who want to have a conversation in the car in the first place,” Särav added.

Sharing economy companies, including Bolt, spoke out against planned changes to the Language Act already last year.

“The Estonian Sharing Economy Association finds that refusing to issue people service provider cards based on lack of language proficiency would clash with the Public Transport Act and constitute restriction of economic freedom,” a letter signed by Kristjan Vanaselja, head of the association and CEO of labor broker GoWorkaBit, reads.

Ministry to give the matter thought

Head of the Ministry of Education and Research’s language department Piret Kärtner told Postimees that she has analyzed the watchdog’s proposals and consulted with other ministries and representatives of employers.

“We are considering changing the regulation by specifying job titles as new ones have appeared and old ones disappeared. We will also compare the language requirements regulation to professional standard requirements,” she said.