Obliging workers to communicate in English at work may not be lawful in general, however there are mechanisms to require it in positions in which it is essential.

One year ago, in September 2017, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation, which belongs to the Ministry of Development, confirmed that it would not limit the application of European Union Enforcement Regulation 2016/1185, which established that, upon its entry on October 12, 2017, English would be the only possible language for communications between pilots and air traffic controllers, unless the competent authorities filed a request with the European Commission for Spanish to also be used for safety reasons.

One year ago, in September 2017, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation, which belongs to the Ministry of Development, confirmed that it would not limit the application of European Union Enforcement Regulation 2016/1185, which established that, upon its entry on October 12, 2017, English would be the only possible language for communications between pilots and air traffic controllers, unless the competent authorities filed a request with the European Commission for Spanish to also be used for safety reasons.

The decision caused a great deal of commotion in the sector, with a large number of detractors (mainly pilot and air traffic controller trade unions), which pointed out that the decision had a direct impact on safety operations at Spanish airports.

The pilots and air-traffic controllers finally convinced the aeronautical authorities to make use of the exception provided for in the regulation and thus enable Spanish to also be used.

Apart from this particular case, the truth is that there is a certain reluctance to use English in working environments in our country, probably due to the fact that Shakespeare’s language is not well spoken in general. According to a recent study carried out by a well-known language center, Spain held 28th position in the ranking of non-English speaking countries’ capacity to speak the language, considering the level to be “moderate”.

More and more companies are therefore motivating their employees to learn English and even obliging them to communicate in the language at work, by implementing programs that are sometimes called Anglicization. This occurred, for example, at the Japanese multinational Rakuten. Aware of the importance of English at a global level, the company implemented an initiative that established a transition period of two years, during which it offered English courses to its employees, with a specific warning that those that did not satisfactorily pass may not be considered for promotion.

However in Spain, it would be unlawful to oblige all employees to communicate in English at work, as the authority to do so does not fit well into the company’s decision-making power granted by article 20 of the Workers’ Statute.

A different issue would be to demand knowledge of a foreign language if it forms part of the content of a position, where it is advisable for the offer of employment to indicate the need for the skill in order to obtain the job –and it is important to determine the specific level of knowledge required and how to certify it–. In this regard, in its judgment of November 19, 2013, the High Court of Justice of the Basque Country considered a dismissal based on grounds of unexpected incompetence due to the inability “to speak English” as unjustified, because the level required had not been determined and the workers had not been subject to tests that certified the lack of knowledge.

In short, although obliging workers to speak in English at work does not exactly comply with the law in general, there may be mechanisms to require it in positions in which it is necessary.