Why Uber is suing over London's English skills requirement for drivers

The ride-hailing firm said it would challenge rules by London's transport authority that mandate English testing for drivers and other strictures on its operations.

Neil Hall/Reuters
The Uber app logo is displayed on a mobile phone in central London.

Uber is launching a legal battle against a requirement that London drivers be required to pass a written English-language test.

The ride-hailing company is challenging Transport for London (TfL), the city’s transport authority, over rules that require all private-hire drivers who are not from a majority English speaking country to pass a language requirement.

For Uber, which has waged highly publicized battles in favor of classifying its drivers as independent contractors rather than employees, observers say the legal campaign marks a new moment where its own interests converge with those of drivers.

“Sometimes Uber puts out its purported interest in the drivers’ rights, but it’s typically really just to help Uber recruit from as broad a pool of drivers as possible,” says Catherine Ruckelshaus, general counsel and program director at the National Employment Law Project, which advocates on behalf of workers.

“Uber relies on its ability to pull in new drivers as the other drivers leave,” she tells The Christian Science Monitor.

TfL’s rules also require Uber and other ride-hailing companies to notify TfL if they intend to make changes to its app or business model, potentially clashing with Uber’s frequent descriptions of itself as a technology company rather than a traditional transportation provider.

“This legal action is very much a last resort,” Tom Elvidge, Uber London’s general manager, said in a statement, according to CNN. “New rules are now being introduced that will be bad for both drivers and tech companies like Uber.”

The transport authority, by contrast, argues that the rules requiring drivers to pass a test of written and spoken English are important so drivers can discuss fare with passengers, and for safety reasons.

Uber says that it supports the idea of testing spoken English, but argues that having drivers sit for a two-hour written language exam goes too far.

But the requirement that drivers demonstrate English proficiency at the “B1” level, as classified under the Common European Framework, is harder than the test for British citizenship, which tests speaking and listening, Fortune reports.

United Private Hire Drivers, a trade group, says the requirements could have a particularly harmful effect on longtime drivers, and unfairly impacts private drivers as they compete against taxi drivers.

“Drivers have already a precarious position when it comes to worker rights,” the group says in a blog post. “If and when a driver's license is taken there will be no back up position or supplemental income from their operators. They will be simply discarded.”

The group says the exam’s cost, at £200 (about $260 US), could be prohibitive for some drivers. It also argues that TfL said in an “impact assessment” of the rules the English requirement could provide only a “minor beneficial health impact.”

According to UPHD, the transport authority said in its report that "there is no evidence to suggest that the drivers’ lack of English is currently a widespread issue with regard to current levels of passenger safety."

Ms. Ruckelshaus of NELP says that in the United States, employers who impose such English-language requirements can face legal challenges under employment law.

“Typically, the employer has to show that it’s a bona fide occupational qualification...that there’s a tight nexus between what the job requires, and the ability to communicate in English,” she explains.

“If this were happening in the US, there could potentially be a national origin discrimination claim if the drivers could show that there was a disproportionate impact of this rule on people from other countries who don’t have English as their first language,” Ruckelshaus says.

But a law imposed by an agency or city government, like TfL’s regulation, could instead face a constitutional challenge, she adds.

One US-based driver, however, argues that Uber’s ratings system, which allows the driver and the passenger to rate each other, could make a passenger the ultimate arbiter of a driver’s English.

“I have found that everything needs to be 'squared away' and you really need to play up to the passengers to get a good rating,” a driver from Hoboken, N.J. wrote in a post on a company forum in September 2015.

“So it’s not Uber who will decide about your language skills but the people getting into the vehicle. Believe me, the people getting into the vehicle have no issues with downrating you.”

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