'I don't speak much in my job': Couriers react to Language Act proposal

A Wolt food courier at work.
A Wolt food courier at work. Source: ERR

On Tuesday, Minister of Education and Research Tõnis Lukas (Isamaa) announced a draft proposal to amend the Language Act. According to Lukas, the proposal aims to reflect changes in Estonian society by addressing the "low or nonexistent Estonian language knowledge of many employees in the service sector," including food couriers. ERR News spoke to two of Estonia's leading food delivery platforms about the proposal, before hitting the streets of Tartu to get the views of couriers themselves.

Bolt's Head of Public Policy Henri Arras told ERR News that, as the draft proposal is still fresh, the company was analyzing its potential impact. According to Arras, Bolt plans to provide a more detailed assessment next week. However, he did express concerns about the potentially negative impact on vulnerable groups in Estonian society, should it come into force.

"We can already see that the adoption of the draft in its proposed form would have an impact on many groups in society, including vulnerable groups," said Arras. "For example, it could deprive war refugees arriving in Estonia of an important opportunity to earn income, shifting the burden onto the state support systems," he added.

Wolt Baltics general manager Liis Ristal also said, that more time would be needed to study the proposal before the company could comment on it in detail. "At first glance, it is not clear from the language of the draft, which workers, and at which companies, are subject to the new requirements. The draft will surely become more precise soon," she said.

Ristal did point out however, that regardless of the proposal, offering its services in the national language was important for Wolt in every country it operates in. "It has always been important for us to have a responsive and professional customer service in Estonian," Ristal said.

Wolt food courier. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

"We always offer customer support and communication in the national language in all the markets in which we operate, and this is also the case in Estonia – we have invested in and developed the best possible customer service support unit, and in this respect we have always complied with the laws in force in Estonia that impose language requirements on customer service," she explained.

Ristal also highlighted a distinction between employees who provide real-time customer service, for whom Estonian language knowledge is essential, and couriers, where it may not always be essential. "We have real-time customer service in Estonian, where the customer can communicate with a customer service representative in Estonian within 30 seconds. The entire period of service is covered by Estonian speaking representatives," she explained.

"As far as couriers, who deliver packages to our customers, are concerned, they are not currently subject to the language requirements for customer service under the laws in force today, as they are not considered actively engaged in customer service," Ristal explained. Despite this, she added, Wolt receives very few complaints about its' couriers Estonian language skills, or lack of. "In general, our customers have no concerns in this respect," Ristal said. "We receive (a total of) five or six (pieces of) critical feedback every calendar month on shortcomings in the customer-courier interaction."

More opportunities for language training

However, Ristal said, Wolt is also aware of the potential benefits that speaking better Estonian may bring to its couriers, not just when delivering food to customers, but outside work too.

"We would like to contribute to thinking about how people engaged in (courier) platform work can also live a full life in Estonia and be fully part of our society," she said. "While living in Estonia, it is certainly an advantage to have knowledge of the customs, culture and way of life here, as well as a basic knowledge of the language, even if this is not necessary for their specific job, as is the case for couriers," Ristal explained, adding that more could be done to facilitate the process.

"We see that language training should play a greater role in the integration programs of foreigners working in Estonia, and there are certainly more opportunities for (developing) this than there are now," Ristal said, adding that Wolt "would like to contribute in this respect as well."

A Bolt Food courier. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

But what about the people who the proposed draft could affect most? ERR News took to the streets of Tartu and hailed some couriers to find out.

Viktor from Nigeria told ERR News, that he had lived in Estonia since graduating from the University of Tartu in 2020. He now works as one of Wolt's courier partners. Asked for his views on the proposal, Viktor said he supported the idea. "I'm actually learning Estonian and have A2 level, so next I'm moving up to B1," he said, adding that he enjoys using Estonian to speak with customers while working.

Viktor also believes knowledge of Estonian has helped him to do his job better. "It really helps because if you have trouble finding the address, you can call and figure it out," he says. "If you speak English (on the phone), sometimes people just hang up, so Estonian is good," he explains.

Asked whether his company supported him in learning Estonian, Viktor said he had mostly learned by himself using apps and speaking with people. "I support the idea," he said, adding that it would be great if companies did more to help couriers learn.

Learning Estonian takes time

Shahid from Pakistan studies forestry at the Estonian University of Life Sciences (Eesti Maaülikool). After a full day of studying, he works as a courier for Bolt to help sustain himself while living in Tartu.

"It would be hard to also learn Estonian because I would have to find time on top of my main studies and work," Shahid says. "I work three to four hours every night (for Bolt), after five hours of class. Plus, homework of course," he smiles. "I'm taking an Estonian class at the university," he says, "but I've only been here for a few months, so I'm just beginning."

Shahid added, that Bolt helps him by offering flexible shifts so he can fit work in around his studies. However, before ERR News can ask him any more questions, his phone buzzes. "It's a new order," he says, before politely excusing himself.

Tony from Ghana is a bioengineering student at the University of Tartu. He also works as a Wolt courier partner to help pay for his studies. "It's not something I would support," he tells ERR News, when asked about the proposal. "It would be nice to learn Estonian, but it's not something you can do 'just like that,'" Tony says. "It takes some time." "But," he adds, "when you hear things like that, it feels like maybe they don't want us here."

Not all couriers in Estonia come from overseas. Mart, from Tartu, works as a courier on the Wolt platform to make some extra money on top of his main job. ERR News asks him for his views on the proposed draft. "I think it's good, why not?" he says. "Do you think it would be harder to work as a courier here, for someone without any knowledge of Estonian?" ERR News asks. Mart laughs. "Actually, to be honest, I don't always have to speak that much in my job. And, if a client doesn't speak Estonian, they can always write a message through the app, so we can easily communicate that way," he says.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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