COVID-19 and key workers: The role of migrants across regions and cities

Lukas Kleine-Rueschkamp, Cem Özgüzel 09 December 2020



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, and healthcare are vital for the continuity of economic activity and are often taken for granted. While forced shutdowns confined large sections of the workforce to home during the COVID-19 pandemic, some essential functions still had to be performed to keep citizens healthy, safe and fed during the pandemic. The crisis has thus initiated a new reflection on essential services and the people that work in them – the ‘key workers’ who have been at the frontline during the pandemic and local COVID-19 responses and, in many cases, helped keep the economy running amid far-reaching lockdown measures. 

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, fishing, care and domestic work. The UK extended the visas of health care and social care officials for a year free of charge (OECD 2020a). The French Ministry of Interior announced that it will fast-track the naturalisation process for foreigners that worked in the frontline of the battle against coronavirus to recognise their commitment to France.

Measuring the contribution of migrants to local key worker occupations

Our study (OECD 2020b) assesses the contribution of migrants as key workers in EU cities and regions by taking a nuanced look at differences across space. We use a two-step process. First, we identify key workers by using the key profession criteria based on the European Commission’s guidelines concerning the exercise of free movement of workers during COVID-19, ensuring comparability across countries. Second, we measure the share of migrants (i.e. foreign-born) in key professions at the regional level through the most recent results of the European Labour Force Survey (EU-LFS) and subsequently merge it with the key worker definition for each occupation based on ISCO-occupations at three digits. Combining the two data sources allows us to assess the number of migrants working in key professions as a share of all key workers in regional economies across 31 European countries.

The share of key workers varies significantly within countries

On average, migrants account for 14% of key workers across European regions. However, the migrant 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. 

The importance of migrant key workers 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 a country (Figure 1). In Belgium and the UK, regional differences exceed 30 percentage points, driven by the fact that the capitals, Brussels and London, feature large migrant communities and significant numbers of migrant key workers. In most OECD countries, capital regions have the highest share of migrant key workers (20% on average) – roughly 6 percentage points higher than the respective national average. 

Figure 1 Regional differences across and within countries

Note: The number of migrant key workers as a share of total key workers in the region. Countries appear in descending order by the share of migrant key workers in the total key workers at the national level. Regions correspond to NUTS-1 or NUTS-2 regions depending on data availability. In countries and regions with a very small migrant population, the sample sizes of migrant key workers might be small, and thus estimates might not be fully accurate.
Source: OECD calculations based on the European Labour Force Survey (accessed in November 2020).

Cities rely more on migrant key workers than other areas

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’,1 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 and semi-dense areas and 7% in rural areas. These numbers broadly reflect the distribution of migrants across space.

While migrants in all skill groups play an essential role as key workers, they are particularly important in low-skilled key occupations such as office cleaners or storage labourers (Figure 2). This is especially the case in cities, where migrants accounted for 25% of all low-skilled key workers in 2019. Similarly, among middle-skilled workers (e.g., personal care workers or transport workers), there are significant differences between cities and other areas. In contrast, geographic differences tend to be smaller for low-skilled occupations. 

Figure 2 Migrant key workers by skill level and degree of urbanisation

Note: The number of migrant key workers as a share of all key workers by skill group, and by the degree of urbanisation. The residual from each bar corresponds to native-born key workers. Population weighted averages of 26 European OECD member countries. Occupations are classified following the key worker definition of the European Commission.
Source: OECD calculations based on the European Labour Force Survey (accessed in November 2020).

Migrants provide a vital source of labour supply in healthcare, especially in cities

Some sectors played a critical role during European countries’ first lockdown period and are once again crucial, as many countries entered a second lockdown phase in October and November 2020. Healthcare has been central during these COVID-19 lockdowns. 

While the share of migrant workers in essential sectors 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 and semi-dense areas, and 23% in rural areas (Figure 3). Whereas non-EU migrant doctors tend to concentrate more in cities, medical doctors from EU countries locate mostly outside cities. Foreign-born nurses and personal care assistants, especially those from non-EU countries, primarily work in cities.

Figure 3 Migrant key workers in health services and the degree of urbanisation

Note: The number of migrant workers as a share of total workers in health services or occupation by the degree of urbanisation and country of origin. The residuals are native-born key workers. Industries include occupations that are considered as essential as well those that are not. Population weighted averages of 26 European OECD member countries.
Source: OECD calculations based on the European Labour Force Survey (accessed in November 2020).

In capital regions, migrant doctors and nurses prove vital for the healthcare system. For instance, almost half of doctors and two-thirds of nurses in London are foreign-born. In Brussels, migrants make up around 45% of doctors and nurses, and in Luxembourg almost 70% of doctors were born abroad.

Migrants of all skills contribute to the continuity of services during the pandemic

The statistics presented here highlight the critical role that migrant workers play in performing basic functions in European economies. Migrants help alleviate the problem of labour shortages in many key occupations by offering additional labour supply and ensure the provision of essential services and goods in European regions. The fight against COVID-19 has unveiled the relevance of migrant key workers of all skill levels, 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 public discourse on policies that aim to ensure fair pay, better 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, including better recognition of foreign qualifications, to fully benefit from migrants and their skills.


Fasani, F (2020), "Immigrant key workers in Europe: The COVID-19 response that comes from abroad",, 5 May.  

OECD (2020a), "Managing international migration under COVID-19", OECD Policy Responses to Covid-19.

OECD (2020b), "COVID-19 and key workers: What role do migrants play in your region?", OECD COVID-19 Policy Note.


1 The degree of urbanisation is a methodology to classify cities, towns and 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 (see  



Topics:  Covid-19 Labour markets Migration

Tags:  key workers, lockdown, immigrants, COVID-19, immigration, migrant workers

Economist, OECD

Economist, OECD


CEPR Policy Research