The coalition Reform Party, Isamaa and Social Democratic Party (SDE) failed to reach an agreement regarding the amendment of the Language Act. As a result, the current, XIV Riigikogu will no longer be able to amend the law in time, sparing taxi and food delivery drivers from being imposed with new Estonian language proficiency requirements.
The Ministry of Education and Research spent several months drawing up a bill of amendments that would have imposed new, more stringent Estonian language proficiency requirements on many workers.
B1, or threshold, proficiency under the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) was to become a prerequisite for being issued a taxi driver's service provider card (teenindajakaart).
Planned amendments were also slated to impose Estonian proficiency requirements at the A2, or waystage, level on couriers working for Bolt, Wolt and other food delivery platforms — just one level below B1.
Likewise included in the bill were several other proposed changes, from requiring Estonian-language URLs for the websites of public institutions to the regulation of audio advertising in public spaces such as shopping malls.
"The role of the Estonian language in public spaces has deteriorated pretty rapidly," Minister of Education and Research Tõnis Lukas (Isamaa) told ERR on Tuesday. "And this should have been responded to quickly. The Language Act bill provided an opportunity to do so, and I'm very sorry that [our] coalition partners saw no need to support it."
The fate of the bill became clear at a meeting of the coalition council on Monday once SDE chair Lauri Läänemets confirmed that the bill was off the agenda.
"I think all of us understood there that it wasn't actually going to be added to the government's agenda," Läänemets told ERR. "And if it doesn't get added to the government's agenda, there won't be time to enact it into law. There's so little time until the end of the current parliament's term."
SDE chair: Not enough Estonian language teachers
Läänemets said that he also believes that people in every profession should speak Estonian, but that the Social Democrats found Lukas' proposed solution to be too hasty.
"We're demanding that people start learning and working in Estonian quickly, but there aren't any Estonian language teachers," he highlighted, noting that many people were poised to lose their jobs as a result of the proposed amendments. "We don't agree with turning working people into social welfare benefit recipients."
The SDE chair acknowledged that the state is training a significant number of language teachers, but these teachers will be needed first and foremost for the nationwide transition to Estonian-language education.
"As for learning opportunities, I'd say that that is very much a matter of attitude," Lukas said in response. "Estonian society has the right to demand Estonian-language service — not that things get done in cases where the client speaks the cab driver's language and then everything is fine. And that is a philosophical difference in attitudes toward [Estonia's] official language."
Only traditional cab companies within Language Board's purview
The Language Act in its current form already requires B1-level Estonian language proficiency of taxi drivers. The bill in question, however, would have amended the law to turn language proficiency into a prerequisite for being issued a service provider card.
This means that by the start of 2024, employees to graduate school in Estonia would have been required to submit their diploma, and others a certificate of language proficiency.
Proposed amendments notwithstanding, the Language Board can already conduct checks of employees working for traditional taxi companies.
"But drivers providing taxi services as so-called platform work aren't subject to any language requirements, because legally speaking, they aren't taxi drivers," Lukas said, stressing that the need to update legislation is urgent. "Because in terms of the Estonian language and from the client's perspective, this situation has driven our taxi market as well as overall service culture into an utter deficit and bad state."
Läänemets believes that while the current Riigikogu has run out of time to pass this bill into law, they could still continue working with Lukas' ideas. The transition would have to be made smoother for workers, however.
"And some sort of other exceptions will surely have to be made as well," he continued. "But we as a society would be shooting ourselves in the foot with this kind of pell-mell rushing."
Editor: Aili Vahtla