During COVID-19 lockdowns it became visible that migrants are often important in sectors that are crucial for the functioning of everyday life. Informed by this experience, this note provides an assessment of the role of foreign-born workers in essential services (referred to as migrant key workers) at regional level for 31 European countries. It examines the share of migrant key workers in regional labour markets, their importance in jobs with different skill requirements, and differences between EU and non-EU migrants. Migrants play a crucial role in health care, where 23% of doctors and 14% of nurses are foreign-born. In cities such as London or Brussels, around half of all doctors and nurses are migrants. Overall, capital regions have the highest share of migrant key workers (20%). Similarly, cities rely more on migrant key workers than other areas, especially in low-skilled occupations where migrants make up 25% of workers.
During COVID-19 lockdowns, some occupations have been essential for keeping the economy and vital services running. Workers in those occupations are also referred to as key workers.
Migrants play an important role in essential services, accounting for 14% of key workers across European regions, with 5% from EU countries and 9% from non-EU countries.
In most countries, capital regions have the highest share of migrant key workers, with migrants accounting for an average of 20% of all key workers in the region. In some capital regions, this share can be even significantly larger, exceeding 50% in Brussels.
In cities, migrants and especially non-EU migrants are more likely to work in low-skill key occupations than their native-born peers. However, migrants in cities are still more likely to work in high-skill key occupations compared to migrants located elsewhere.
Key sectors such as distribution, food processing, or health care strongly rely on migrants for their workers, especially in more urban environments.
Migrants’ contribution to critical parts of the health care system is even larger. Migrants account for around 23% of medical doctors and 14% of nurses. While EU doctors and nurses are evenly spread across space, those originating from non-EU countries are more likely to work in cities.
The unprecedented economic and social challenges emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic have cast a new light on those services that are at the core of functioning local economies. Sectors such as food processing, delivery, or health care are vital for the continuity of economic activity and are often taken for granted. During the pandemic, these sectors were defined as “essential”. The crisis has initiated a new reflection of essential services and the people that work in them, 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 OECD. This note assesses the contribution of migrants as key workers in EU cities and regions by taking a nuanced look at differences across space. In doing so, it complements country-level analyses that describe the contribution migrants played in key sectors for regions’ capacity of coping with the crisis.
While forced shutdowns confined large sections of the workforce at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, some essential functions still needed to be performed to keep citizens healthy, safe and fed during the pandemic. Consequently, key workers have been at the frontline during the pandemic and local COVID-19 responses and, in many cases, helped the economy running amid far-reaching lockdown measures. Key workers cover a wide range of tasks – extending from high skilled (e.g., doctors or medical researchers) to low skilled occupations (e.g., supermarket cashiers or delivery drivers).
Across European countries, 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 native-born population. Faced with labour shortages, which were apparent even prior to the crisis, the demand for migrant key workers of all skill groups has increased to ensure the continuity of health services and provisions of goods. Consequently, many countries have reacted: Italy granted temporary work permits to undocumented immigrants employed in agriculture, fishing, care and domestic work sectors; the UK government extended the visas of health care and social care officials for a year free of charge; and the French Ministry of Interior announced that it will fast-track the naturalisation process of foreigners that worked in the frontline of the battle against coronavirus to show that the French state recognises their commitment to France.
This note describes how migrant workers have contributed to keeping basic services running in European regions during the lockdown. It quantifies the prevalence of migrant workers in the so-called “key professions” that the European Commission and EU member states have identified using the most recent wave of the EU Labour Force Survey (see Box 1 for details).
Method and data
This note uses a two-step process to assess migrants’ importance as key workers in regions. First, it defines whether a worker is a key worker or not by using the key profession criteria based on the Communication from the European Commission on guidelines concerning the exercise of the free movement of workers during COVID-19 (see Fasani and Mazza for a similar approach). According to this definition, there are 45 key occupations (out of 181 occupations in total) including occupations such as personal care workers, teachers, travel attendants, medical doctors or food processing workers, among many others.
Second, the share of migrants in key professions at the regional level is measured through the most recent results of the European Labour Force Survey (EU-LFS) and subsequently merged with the key worker definition for each occupation based on ISCO-occupations at three digits. Combining the two data sources allows assessing the number of immigrants working in key professions as a share of the total key workers in regional economies.
Additionally, key workers can be further classified into three skill levels based on occupations :
Low skilled: Jobs in sales and services and elementary occupations (ISCO 5 and 9).
Medium skilled: Jobs as clerks, craft workers, plant and machine operators and assemblers (ISCO 4, 7 and 8).
High skilled: Jobs in managerial, professional, technical and associated professional occupations (ISCO 1, 2 and 3).
It is important to note that this definition groups workers by the skill requirement of their occupations and does not necessarily reflect the actual skill levels defined by workers’ formal education. As shown in the literature, migrants are often downgraded in the labour market, meaning that they work in occupations that are below their educational qualifications.
Finally, the note also examines the share of migrants in selected sectors that are essential during lockdown measures, namely health care, distribution, and food processing. For those sectors, the note considers all workers given that the large majority of workers can be classified as key workers.
The analysis uses the most recent results of EU-LFS (2019). The sample is restricted to employed workers in the 15 to 64 age group. This note uses the common approach of defining migrants as those individuals born in a foreign country, regardless of those individuals’ arrival in their resident country. Migrants are further split into two groups based on their country of birth: those born in another EU-member country (i.e., EU migrants) and those born in a country outside of the EU (i.e., non-EU migrants). EU-migrants are all those workers who are born in an EU Member State other than the one where they currently work and reside. Non-EU migrants are all those workers who are born outside of the Union. Finally, anyone who was born in their country of residence is considered native-born.
On average, migrants account for 14% of key workers across European OECD regions. However, migrants’ share of key workers varies widely across regions, ranging from almost 50% in Brussels or the Lake Geneva region to 1% or less in other regions. In most regions, migrants are as likely to work in key professions as native-born residents. Overall, the share of migrants among key workers is roughly proportional to the share of migrants in the regional workforce. In almost half of the regions in the sample (101 out of 247 regions), migrants’ share among key workers is about the same as their share in the overall regional workforce (i.e. the ratio is between 0.9 and 1.1). However, some regions and countries offer exceptions to this pattern (see Annex Figure 1.A.1). In North East England (UK) or Stockholm (Sweden), for example, migrants are highly over-represented in key professions, while they are significantly underrepresented in other places such as Andalucia (Spain).
The country of origin of migrant key workers and their share in the workforce differ significantly across European countries. Migrants account for up to 47% of key workers in Luxembourg but less than 2% in Poland and the Slovak Republic (Figure 1). Overall, the majority of migrant key workers comes from non-EU countries. On average, non-EU migrants make up almost 9% of key workers, compared to around 5% of key workers from EU-28 countries in the 31 European countries covered in this brief. However, in a few countries with a relatively larger share of high-skill immigration, such as Luxembourg, Switzerland and Ireland, two-thirds of migrant key workers or more come from EU countries.
The importance of migrant key workers also differs significantly within countries. On average, there is a 13-percentage point difference between the regions with the highest and lowest shares of migrant key workers in the same country (Figure 3). In countries such as Belgium and the United Kingdom, regional differences exceed 30 percentage points, driven by the fact that the national capitals, Brussels and London, concentrate large migrant communities and very high shares of migrant key workers.
Some regions rely more on EU key worker, others on non-EU key workers. In regions like Luxembourg, Lake Geneva or Zurich, key workers from EU countries correspond to more than 28% of all key workers, while those from non-EU migrants constitute less than 13%. In contrast, non-EU migrants constitute more than 30% of key workers in London and 20% in Ile-de-France, while EU migrants accounted for 13.1% and 4.4%, respectively. It is important to note that in these regions, non-EU migrants make up a higher share of key workers than of all workers in their region, indicating a stronger contribution to key occupations.
In most EU OECD countries, capital regions have the highest share of migrant key workers. On average, migrants account for almost 20% of all key workers in capital regions, which is roughly 6 percentage points higher than the respective national average.
Migrant doctors and nurses play a particularly important role in capital regions and their health care sector. For instance, almost half of doctors and two-thirds of nurses are foreign-born in London (Figure 4). In Brussels, migrants make up around 45% of doctors and nurses. Migrants constitute more than 20% of all doctors in 9 out of 18 capital regions. Among nurses, migrants account for around 30% or more of the workforce in 5 out of 18 capital regions.
Unsurprisingly, migrants account for a larger share of key workers in cities, as migrant populations tend to be larger in densely populated areas. Based on the “Degree of Urbanisation”, which distinguishes different types of settlements, the share of migrants among all key workers is 17.5% in cities (settlements above 50,000 inhabitants), while it is 12% in towns & semi-dense areas and 7% in rural areas (Figure 5). These numbers broadly reflect the distribution of migrants across the degree of urbanisation, as migrants make up 18%, 13%, and 7% of the workforce in cities, towns & semi-dense areas and rural areas, respectively. In all of the 26 European OECD countries except for Greece, migrant key workers play a larger role in cities than in rural areas, with the largest city-rural differences observable in Austria, Belgium, Luxembourg and Switzerland (see Annex Figure 1.A.3, for more details).
While migrants of all skill groups play an essential role as key workers, migrants are particularly important in key low-skilled occupations such as office cleaners or storage labourers (Figure 6). This is especially the case in cities. In 2019, migrants constituted 25% of all low-skilled key workers in cities, and 23% and 14% in town & semi-dense areas and rural areas, respectively. Similarly, among middle-skilled workers (e.g., personal care workers, transport and storage workers), there are significant differences between cities and other areas. In contrast, those geographic differences tend to be smaller for the share of migrant key workers in low-skilled occupations.
Where migrant key workers settle depends on whether they were born in an EU country or not. EU-migrants of all skill-groups are spread across all territories, corresponding to 3-8% of all local key workers. In contrast, non-EU migrants, especially those who are low skilled, are concentrated in cities (Figure 6). For example, while non-EU migrants make up 5% of all low-skilled key workers in rural areas, their share rises to 20% in cities. Similarly, the share of non-EU migrants among medium-skilled key workers ranges from 3% in rural areas up to 15% in cities.
Compared to their native-born peers, migrant key workers are more likely to be low skilled (Figure 7), a pattern that is observable across all types of areas. Two facts stand out. While EU migrant key workers resemble native-born key workers in terms of their skill levels, non-EU migrants are much less likely to work in high-skilled jobs and twice as likely to work in low-skilled jobs. In all types of regions, migrants tend to work in jobs that have lower skill requirements compared to native-born key workers. Part of the difference is due to lower average formal skills of migrants compared to natives. Howewer, it is also due to migrants downgrading in the labour market, meaning that they work in occupations that are below their skill levels. While there are ample reasons for working in jobs below one’s qualification, this effect is possibly stronger for migrants arriving from non-EU countries as they face additional difficulties in the recognition of their foreign degrees or constraints related to their residence permits.
Some sectors played a particularly important role during European countries’ first lockdown period and are now again vital as many countries have entered a second lockdown phase in October and November 2020. The three sectors that include food processing, distribution and health care are particularly central to the continuity of essential services during the COVID-19 lockdowns. The large majority of jobs in those sectors consist of key worker occupations. This section discusses to what extent migrants contribute to those sectors. Overall, migrants make up a significant share of the workers in the three sectors.
In health care, between 7% (rural areas) and 19% (cities) of workers are migrants (Figure 8). The fact that migrants work in many low-skilled occupations means that they are even more concentrated in the distribution and food processing sectors, especially in cities but also in towns & semi-dense areas. Migrants constituted 21% of the total distribution sector and 18% of food processing in cities. In rural areas, those shares more than halved, with 12% and 6% of employees in rural areas in those sectors being migrants.
While the share of migrant workers in health care follows the share of migrants in the workforce across all types of areas, migrants play a disproportionately important role in critical parts of the health care system. For instance, 23% of medical doctors in cities are migrants, 21% in towns & semi-dense areas, and 23% in rural areas (Figure 9). Whereas non-EU migrant doctors tend to concentrate more in cities (decreasing from 16% in cities to 14% in rural areas), medical doctors originating from EU countries locate in mostly outside of cities.
Foreign-born nurses and personal care assistants, especially those from non-EU countries, primarily work in cities. For example, 19% of nurses and 27% of personal care assistants in cities are migrants, compared to 7% and 9% in rural areas, respectively. Moreover, the share of non-EU migrants among nurses and personal assistants is significantly higher in cities than in rural areas.
The availability of a sufficient number of skilled and motivated health workers is central to the performance of any health care system, as illustrated by the current COVID-19 pandemic. Not only it has cast a spotlight on the important role and dedication of frontline health workers, the COVID-19 crisis further highlights the deeply embedded challenge of staff shortages as well as the significant contribution that migrant doctors and nurses make to the health workforce in many OECD countries. Countries that had a relatively higher number of medical staff per capita before the pandemic responded faster to the steep rise in demand for health care . During the COVID-19 pandemic, many of the OECD countries already reliant on migrant health workers have implemented additional policy measures to ease migrant entry and the recognition of their foreign professional qualifications.
Around 14% of key workers in European regions are foreign-born, and this share tends to be even higher in specific countries, in cities and in certain sectors. Migrants assume significant parts of low-skilled and low-pay jobs in sectors such as distribution or food processing. In terms of occupations, more than a third of cleaners and helpers, a quarter of personal care workers in the health sector, and one-in-five workers in food processing are migrants. However, migrants also contribute to the labour supply in high-skilled key occupation, as shown by the fact that they account for up to 23% of medical doctors.
These statistics not only highlight the critical role that migrant workers have played and are playing in performing basic functions in European economies, but they also suggest an important fact: both low- and high-educated migrants are vital for essential services within European societies. Amid the labour shortages faced in many key occupations ranging from agricultural workers to medical doctors, migrants help alleviate this problem by offering additional labour supply and ensure the provision of essential services and goods in European regions. The fight against COVID-19 has unveiled their relevance, which is otherwise often overlooked in a migration debate predominantly focused on the importance of attracting high skilled migrants.
The importance and working conditions of key workers and the contribution of migrants to essential services are topics that will extend beyond the current crisis and have already resulted in a new discourse on policies that aim to ensure fair pay, facilitated access to jobs, and better recognition of foreign professional qualifications. In the medium to long term, countries will need to ensure easier access of migrants to key worker occupations that currently face significant impediments in terms of recognising foreign qualifications such as medical doctors to fully benefit from migrants and their skills.
Finally, migration is not a panacea for all problems in key sectors of European economies and also has repercussions for sending countries. Especially in areas such as health care, one countries’ or regions’ gain can be another’s loss as professionals with extensive medical training migrate to other places with better working or economic conditions. While migration can be a vital source of labour supply for jobs that are relevant for countries’, regions’, and cities’ economies, it might not address all labour shortages in the recipient areas. To boost regions’ resilience, training and remuneration are vital areas to boost key sectors and raise the attractiveness of key worker professions.
 Fasani, F. and J. Mazza (2020), “Immigrant Key Workers: Their Contribution to Europe’s COVID-19 Response”, IZA Policy Papers 155, https://www.iza.org/publications/pp/155/immigrant-key-workers-their-contribution-to-europes-covid-19-response.
 OECD (2020), Contribution of migrant doctors and nurses to tackling COVID-19 crisis in OECD crisis, https://www.oecd.org/coronavirus/policy-responses/contribution-of-migrant-doctors-and-nurses-to-tackling-covid-19-crisis-in-oecd-countries-2f7bace2/.
 OECD (2020), International Migration Outlook 2020, https://doi.org/10.1787/ec98f531-en.
 OECD (2020), Managing international migration under COVID-19, http://www.oecd.org/coronavirus/policy-responses/managing-international-migration-under-covid-19-6e914d57/.
 OECD (2019), Under Pressure: The Squeezed Middle Class, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/689afed1-en.
 OECD/European Union (2020), Health at a Glance: Europe 2020: State of Health in the EU Cycle, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/82129230-en.
The EU labour force survey contains information on NUTS1 or NUT2 regions depending on the country. These regions correspond to Territorial Level 2 regions (TL2), according to the OECD Territorial Grid.
Migrants can be over-represented (or under-represented) in key occupations if their share in the overall workforce is very small (or large).
In London (United Kingdom), migrants are even more present in key occupations than in the overall regional labour force. In Brussels (Belgium), migrants make up a slightly lower share of key workers than in the total labour force.
The Degree of Urbanisation is a methodology to classify cities, towns & semi-dense areas, and rural areas for international comparative purposes. The method proposes three types of areas reflecting the urban-rural continuum instead of the traditional urban–rural dichotomy.
The share of key workers among the local workforce remains roughly constant across the degree of urbanisation and corresponds to around 30% of the total workforce. The higher share of migrants among key workers in cities compared to rural areas is thus not due to higher demand of such jobs in cities, but due to larger migrant population in cities. As can be seen in Annex Figure 1.A.2, the share immigrants key workers among the total regional workforce is 5% in cities, while this share is 4% and 2% in towns and semi-dense areas and in rural areas, respectively.
The distribution sector (NACE code H) corresponds to the provision of passenger and freight transport by rail, pipeline, road, water or air, and all associated activities such as terminal and parking facilities, cargo handling, warehousing of goods, renting of transport equipment with driver or operator, as well as postal services.