If you want to drive for Uber in London, you have to prove you speak English

On Friday, the ride-hailing company lost its legal battle over an English language test in London, a ruling that could leave thousands of drivers without a gig.

Toby Melville/Reuters/File
A photo illustration shows the Uber app logo displayed on a mobile telephone, as it is held up for a posed photograph in central London, Britain in October 2016. A British court on Friday ruled against Uber's claim, saying that private hire drivers in London need to pass a language test.

It hasn’t been a good month for Uber: In addition to a wave of controversies it has faced in the United States, from a sexual harassment scandal to a video of its chief executive officer arguing with a driver, the ride-hailing company on Friday lost its legal battle over an English language test case in London, a ruling that could cause the firm to lose thousands of workers.

Citing public safety concerns, the public transportation agency Transport for London (TfL) last year set an English language requirement for private-hire drivers in London. The agency asks applicants to prove their ability to communicate in English “at an appropriate level” through a test that includes a 120-word essay, or by providing a previous qualification. According to statistics from the British Department for Transport, by March 2015, approximately 78.7 percent of all licensed drivers in London held a private hire vehicle-only license.

Uber protested that the standard for reading and writing was too high, and the test itself too expensive (at about $250 US), and launched legal action in August. The firm said the new regulation could lead to 33,000 of its existing drivers losing jobs.

“This is a deeply disappointing outcome for tens of thousands of drivers who will lose their livelihoods because they cannot pass an essay writing test,” the company said in a statement, according to Bloomberg. “We’ve always supported spoken English skills, but writing an essay has nothing to do with communicating with passengers or getting them safely from A to B.”

Proponents of the new requirement said it will improve standards of service and passenger safety in London.

“Drivers being able to speak English and understand information from passengers and licensing requirements is a vital part of ensuring passengers get the high standard of service they need and deserve,” said London Mayor Sadiq Khan, according to The Guardian. “This could include discussing a better route, talking about a medical condition, or ensuring every driver is fully up to date with new regulations.”

Though other cities also require a language test, the ramifications of the London rule might be larger for Uber, who said 40 percent of the city's drivers would likely fail the tests, Bloomberg reports.

“Many drivers who use Uber are immigrants,” Uber said in an email to its passengers in September. “They work hard to look after themselves and their families. Driving has given them an opportunity to integrate into their local community.”

While recognizing that tens of thousands of drivers could either fail the test or be deterred from applying for a license in the coming years, Judge John Mitting, who presided over the case, said TfL has no reasonable alternative.

"TfL are entitled to require private hire drivers to demonstrate English language compliance," he said as he rejected Uber's claim, according to Reuters.

While Uber said it will appeal the ruling, the company won an overturn on other TfL rules, including proposals for Uber to operate a 24/7 call center and provide round-the-clock driver insurance, regardless of whether drivers were on the job.   

The decision is the latest setback for the San Francisco-based company, after a British employment court ruled in its drivers' favor in October, saying they should be treated as workers, not contractors, and are entitled to holiday pay and minimum wage. Uber is appealing that verdict.

This report includes material from Reuters. 

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