No legal requirement yet for taxi drivers to have Estonian-language skills

Bolt taxi.
Bolt taxi. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

A situation where there is no requirement for taxi drivers or food couriers using platforms such as Bolt to be able to speak and understand even basic Estonian remains the case. An education ministry spokesperson said legislative amendments may be forthcoming, though not this year.

Director General of the Language Board (Keeleamet) Ilmar Tomusk said: "The way I see it is that the only solution to this is that the requirement for taxi drivers to have Estonian language skills should be restored in the Public Transport Act, where one of the conditions for issuing a [taxi] driver's permit should certainly be Estonian language skills, and that such services can only be offered when this requirement is met."

At the same time, Tomusk noted, taxi drivers in Estonia can face many situations where they have a clear and present need to understand the Estonian language. 

Tomusk gave the example of info boards giving the states of some of the many roadworks ongoing in central Tallinn at present.

"Or if there is any dangerous situation arises on the road; then, a taxi driver should surely be able to explain to the customer what the situation is – in this case, an app is definitely not useful," Tomusk went on.

"Yes, they [taxi and food courier service providers] justify it as constituting a service of an information society. However, in reality, we can see that this app certainly does not substitute for the need for communication between customer and taxi driver."

Henri Arras, head of government relations at Bolt, which provides taxi-hailing and food courier services, said that they get about a dozen complaints per month about taxi drivers' or couriers' Estonian language skills, which, he said, was a drop in the ocean compared with the number of times Bolt's services get used in a month.

Arras said: "Hundreds of thousands of trips get made over the same period of time, which brings us certainty that, overwhelmingly, everything works well via the application, so additional communication is not needed."

Kätlin Kõverik, chief expert at the Ministry of Education and Research's language policy department, conceded that the problem exists, adding that the entire language act is in the process of being amended for this reason.

Categorizing drivers who use the Bolt app to provide their services was an issue, she said. "Are they taxi drivers or do they continue to provide ride-hailing services?

"There has to be a compromise, and for this reason, we are not talking about a specific solution or any change in the law or paragraph of the law," she told ERR.

There has been no need to provide proof of Estonian proficiency to B1 level in the Common European Framework (CEF) for seven years now; prior to that, this requirement was in place.

According to Ilmar Tomusk, there have been "quite a lot" of reported cases of a taxi driver not only not being conversant in Estonian, but unable to speak English or Russian either, or, he said, being unfamiliar with the Roman alphabet.

"People can get lost, end up in the wrong location, or the taxi driver cannot provide any explanations in any of the languages ​​used in our region," Tomusk added.

He said that some taxi passengers then file a complaint with the Language Board after such experiences, while, he said, the board can, in conjunction with the Police and Border Guard Board (PPA), track down the driver in question – if the passenger can recall the vehicle license plate number.

Should they be able to contact the taxi driver, the board will then attempt to bring them into its office for a language check-up.

However, in those cases the driver may deny working regularly, saying that the trip in question was a one-off, or that they have left Estonia, for instance.

"Then we find ourselves in such a deadlock whereby there is a problem, but we cannot solve it," Tomusk said.

Food couriers could get by with a lower Estonian language level than taxi drivers or, for instance, waiters, Tomusk added, suggesting a level of A2 (elementary).

This ought to be enough to, for instance, understand street or address names or convey the basics of any problem which might arise, he added.

While until 2016, CEF B1 level as a minimum was needed before providing taxi services, the Public Transport Act as it currently stands does not require knowledge of any particular language.

Kätlin Kõverik said the education ministry has pledged to complete by next summer the requisite legal analysis ahead of any possible legislation amendments, and only then will specific proposals be put into action.

"This issue is far more extensive than concerning just drivers. We are essentially looking at the entire language law, and accompanying acts, as a whole. The question is not only about platform service providers, but about the preservation and maintenance of the Estonian language space as a whole, and what measures it might be reasonable to use to accomplish this.

"We also have to take into account the fact that, at the moment, a significant number of war refugees have arrived in Estonia so that their survival is also guaranteed," Kõverik said.

An amendment to the Public Transport Act had also been prepared last year, but the then government did not reach a consensus. 

No mention of a language requirement for taxi drivers was made by the current government in its coalition agreement.

The Language Board is a state agency under the auspices of the Ministry of Education and Research.


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Editor: Mirjam Koch, Andrew Whyte

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