Covid-19: What Role Do Migrant Workers Play?

During the Covid-19 lockdowns, the role of migrants in sectors crucial to the functioning of everyday life became clear. Looking back, this note will assess the role of foreign workers in essential services (referred to as migrant key workers) in EU member countries. It examines the share of migrant key workers in regional labour markets and their importance in jobs with different skill requirements.



Migrants play a crucial role in healthcare, where 23% of doctors and 14% of nurses are foreign-born. In cities such as London and Brussels, around half of all doctors and nurses are migrant key workers (20%). Similarly, cities rely more on migrant key workers than the rural areas, especially in low-skilled occupations where migrants make up 25% of the workers.

  • During the Covid-19 lockdowns, some occupations have been essential to keep the economy and vital services running. Workers in these occupations are also referred to as key workers.
  • Migrants play an important role in essential services, accounting for 14% of key workers across Europe, with 5% from EU countries and 9% from non-EU countries.
  • In most countries, the capital has the highest share of migrant key workers, accounting for an average 20% of all key workers. In some capitals, this share can be significantly higher, exceeding 50% in Brussels.
  • In cities, migrants, and especially non-EU migrants, are more likely to work in key low-skilled occupations than their native counterparts. However, migrants in cities are still more likely to work in key high-skilled occupations compared with migrants located elsewhere.
  • Key sectors, such as distribution, food processing, and healthcare, strongly rely on migrants, especially in more urban environments.
  • The migrants’ contributions to critical parts of the healthcare system are even larger. Migrants account for around 23% of medical doctors and 14% of nurses. While EU doctors and nurses are evenly spread across the country, those originating from non-EU countries.

Migrants Are Essential Key Workers in Regional Economies

The unprecedented economic and social challenges caused by the Covid-19 pandemic have cast a new light on services at the core of local economies. Sectors such as food processing, delivery, and healthcare are vital for the continuity of economic activities and are often taken for granted. During the pandemic, these sectors were defined as “essential”. The crisis has shed new light for reflection on essential services and the people who work there – the so-called “key workers”. In particular, the role of migrants who often work in low-paid but vital occupations has gained greater recognition across the OECD. This note assesses the contribution of key workers in EU cities by taking a nuanced look at differences across the spectrum. In doing so, it offers a country-level analysis, describing the contributions migrants have made in key sectors in every region to cope with the crisis. Key workers have been frontline workers and local Covid-19 responders during the pandemi. In many cases, they have helped run the economy amid extreme lockdown measures. They cover wide-ranging tasks, extending from high-skilled (eg doctors and medical researchers) to low-skilled (eg supermarket cashiers and delivery drivers) occupations.

Immigrants constitute around 14% of all key workers and contribute to the economy by sharing the responsibility and burden of delivering essential services alongside the local population. Faced with labour shortages, which were apparent even prior to the crisis, the demand for key workers of all skill groups has increased amid the pandemic. In particular, the role of migrants who often work in low-paid but vital occupations has gained greater recognition across the OECD (Fasani 2020) and prompted many countries to react. Italy granted temporary work permits to undocumented immigrants employed in agriculture, fisheries, and care and domestic jobs. The UK extended the visas of healthcare and social care staff for a year free of charge (OECD 2020a). The French Ministry of Interior announced that it will fast-track the naturalisation process of foreigners who worked in the frontline of the battle against the coronavirus to recognise their commitment to France.

Impact of Covid-19 on Migration Policies: Key Findings

In most OECD countries, travel bans were put in place quickly to prevent transferring new Covid-19 cases, with the exception of a few countries such as Mexico, which took no specific measures. However, in most cases, nationals and long-term residents have been able to return home, except in a few countries which have imposed stricter measures, such as Colombia.

By end May 2020, most OCED countries imposed a quarantine period of typically 14 days. Self-quarantine is the norm, but some countries impose stricter rules with geolocalisation applications (Korea) or quarantine at the port of entry (Australia).

A number of exemptions to the travel bans have been put in place, notably for cross border workers, seasonal workers and healthcare professionals.

Some countries have facilitated online applications or email communication in order to reduce travel. Due to travel restrictions, working hours and wages have been reduced, increasing unemployment in some cases.

Covid-19 restrictions and border closures reduced work opportunities; migrant workers faced job losses, pay cuts, economic hardships as well as discrimination due to Covid-19 related fears.

Most OECD countries have organised access to Covid-19 treatment for all categories of migrants. Some countries like France or Belgium had offered free universal access to healthcare prior to the crisis. Others like Portugal have temporarily regularised migrants in an irregular situation to ensure full access.

The Covid-19 pandemic has devastated international labour migration, including migrant remittances and employment. Migrant workers need more economic and social protection at this moment and supporting them is essential.

General Election 2019: Johnson Will Seek to Reduce Unskilled Migration

Boris Johnson says he will seek to reduce unskilled migration into the UK if the Tories win the election.

The prime minister said: “I certainly think that when it comes to the people who don’t have a job to go to and are coming in an uncontrolled way, we certainly need to be reducing that”.

But he added that he was “In favour of people of talent coming to this country”.

He said that, in the past 20 years, many people without jobs or useful skills required by the economy had come to the UK. “We have got to be realistic about the needs of our economy for bringing skilled workers in to help us,” he added.

Last week, Boris Johnson stated his plan to create large-scale financial opportunities in sustainability initiatives. The statement goes on to say that the creation of “Up to 250,000 highly skilled green jobs” will hopefully spur massive private sector investment by 2030.

Writing in the Financial Times, the UK prime minister said “Now is the time for employing high-skilled workers to satisfy people who try to improve the country.”

The Impact of Covid-19 on UK Immigration for Workers and Employers

Due to the government’s announcement on 22 February 2021, changes to existing Covid-19 concessions for non-UK citizens are expected. Covid-19 has impacted visa applications and led the government to make temporary changes to the rules for businesses and their employees. This guide explains the changes that immigration solicitors should be aware of.

  • The UK government has released advice for UK visa applicants and temporary UK residents affected by the current travel restrictions and continues to update this page
  • Visas for people working in eligible professions will automatically be extended by one year if this is due to expire between 1 October 2020 and 31 March 2021. Family members are included and there are no fees involved.
  • Visa holders who were planning to stay longer can apply for an extension online using the relevant form for their visa.

How Are Points Awarded to Migrants?

To qualify for a visa, migrants who want to move to the UK will have to qualify for 70 points.

Having a job offer from an approved employer for a skilled job and being able to speak English will give 50 points.

The applicants can obtain the remaining 20 points if they are due to be paid at least £25,600 a year. They can also gain extra points for having better qualifications (10 points for relevant PhD, or 20 points for a PhD in science, technology, engineering or maths), or an offer of employment in which the UK has a shortage (20 points), even if it does not pay as much money.

Certain jobs in healthcare or education still merit 20 points, even if the salary is less than £25,600.

The applicant must be paid at least £20,480 in line with set amounts for particular jobs in the UK’s four nations.


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