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SDE bill would ease Estonian language workplace requirement on war refugees

SDE delegates at the party's recent leadership vote.
SDE delegates at the party's recent leadership vote. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

The opposition Social Democratic Party (SDE) has submitted a draft bill to the Riigikogu which would lift the Estonian language proficiency requirement for the workplace on those who have arrived in Estonia fleeing the war in Ukraine, for a two-year period.

The bill's explanatory memorandum states that: "Given the number of people who have fled Russian aggression and the resulting burden on the social area [in Estonia], granting an exemption to war refugees arriving through to the end of the year, and exempting them from Estonian language requirements for two years, would be reasonable.

"During the period stated they will get the opportunity to work, and to study Estonian, in order to meet the requirements provided by law after two years," the memorandum continues.

SDE argues that participation in the labor market is the best way to integrate those who have arrived in Estonia from Ukraine, since the Russian invasion, and will enable refugees to cope on their own, reduce the need for state aid and support economic development..

The bill's explanatory memorandum notes that the Language Act already provides for an exception whereby the normal rules on Estonian language proficiency do not apply to an individual working as a foreign expert, or foreign specialist, over a fixed period of time.

The memorandum states that: "This draft provides for an exception according to which aliens applying for international protection and aliens who have received international protection should not meet the Estonian language proficiency requirements for two years, through to the end of this year."

"The exception covers those aliens who have been granted refugee or subsidiary protection status or were it has been established that they fall into the category of persons in need of temporary protection, as defined by a decision of the Council of the EU," it adds.

The law, if it passes a Riigikogu vote, would apply to those recipients of international protection who have arrived in Estonia before December 31 2022 and who have resided in Estonia less than two years.

As of April 5 when the bill was drafted, Estonia had received 27,540 Ukrainian war refugees (27,873 as of Thursday – ed.), a figure SDE considers unreasonable to remain on social benefits for any lengthy period of time, meaning obstacles to their entry into the labor market and to professional work, including those pertaining to language, should be lifted.

On the other hand, participation in the study of the Estonian language would be obligatory for a person of working age, from age 18 through to retirement age, and assistance would be given to the applicant for international protection in Estonia both in arranging Estonian-language lessons and in covering their cost, under the terms of the bill.

As noted, under current Estonian law, foreign top specialists on fixed-term contracts are also exempt from the language requirement. Foreign lecturers and foreign researchers in Estonia are also exempt, if they have worked in Estonia for less than five years.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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