We, taxi drivers in the city of Narva, Estonia, are concerned about the strict language requirements imposed on the employment of this particular occupation. More specifically, the relevant governmental decree of 20 June 2011 requires all taxi drivers to have at least a B1 proficiency in the Estonian language as a condition on employment. We believe this condition is disproportionately strict, a wrong implementation of Estonian and European law and ask for your assistance to change this practice and to make Estonian government to amend the respective legal act.
In Estonia, a strict language policy is pursued, imposing language proficiency requirements in both public and private sphere. The imposition of language requirements in the private sphere must serve public interest in accordance with §2 (2) of the Language Act:
The use of language of legal persons in private law and natural persons is regulated if it is justified for protection of fundamental rights or in the public interest. For the purposes of this Act public interest means public safety, public order, public administration, education, health, consumer protection and occupational safety. The establishment of requirements concerning use of and proficiency in Estonian shall be justified and in proportion to the objective being sought and shall not distort the nature of the rights which are restricted.
While public interest entails public safety and consumer protection, amongst others, we feel that the introduced language requirements do not serve public interest in such a way to be considered proportionate and justified. Furthermore, we believe that these requirements are the obstacle to free movement of workers in the Union.
First, Estonian language law does not consider regional peculiarities. For instance, the population of Narva is mainly composed of persons who have Russian as their mother tongue. According to the last population census in 2011, 96 percent of the population of Narva has Russian as their mother tongue. It should be also noted that a considerable percentage of locals does not speak Estonian at all or very poorly. Persons with Estonian as their mother tongue represent only a very small group of the population of the city (only 2 percent). There is no information about complaints filed by Narva citizens with the specialised body – Language Inspectorate. In other words, the requirement to speak Estonian at B1 in the regional context is rather a matter of national language policy rather than a matter of consumer protection or public safety. State policy to promote the official language might be legitimate but it should also consider principles of proportionality and non-discrimination.
Second, taxi drivers all over Estonia have to prove a B1 level of proficiency in the Estonian language. The level B1 as stated in Appendix I of the Language Act entails the understanding of ‘the main points of clear standard input on familiar matters regularly encountered at work, school and in leisure’, producing ‘simple connected text on topics that are familiar or of personal interest’ and describing ‘experiences and events, dreams, hopes and ambitions and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans.’ Consequently, a B1 level is more relevant for having private conversations and discussions rather than being necessary for the performance of the occupation as a taxi driver, where the very basic knowledge of the language is sufficient, such as A1, to understand where the customer wants to go and to express what the costs for the service are. This is equally valid for Narva and any other Estonian region regardless of linguistic preferences of the majority population. These practices of Estonia have also been criticised by the specialised bodies of the Council of Europe.
Third, workers from other EU Member States may encounter obstacles when seeking employment or establishment as a taxi driver in Estonia. For instance, cities like Narva might be very interesting for numerous EU nationals speaking Russian, e.g. Latvians or Lithuanians, due to lack of a linguistic barrier. In the EU context, under Article 3(1) of Regulation No 492/2011 on the freedom of movement of workers does allow for ‘conditions relating to linguistic knowledge required by reason of the nature of the post to be filled’. However, such measures in no circumstances can be disproportionate in relation to the aim pursued and must not bring about discrimination against nationals of other Member States. Very demanding language requirements for Estonian taxi drivers (as well as some other professions) can jeopardise freedom of movement of workers – one of the fundamentals freedoms in the EU.