What essential work do Polish migrants in the UK do?

Defining ‘essential work’ is far from straightforward – it varies across countries and the list of ‘essential work’ jobs has changed throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. At the beginning of our research, in November 2020, we adopted the UK Government definition1,2 of essential work as: the type of work that is essential for keeping British society and economy running during the pandemic. 

According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS 2020), pre-pandemic, in 2019, about 10.6 million of those employed (33% of the total workforce) were in key worker occupations in the UK. Migrant workers are known to be over-represented among some essential work occupations, yet better information is needed. Estimates based on the 2019 Labour Force Survey indicate that the foreign-born population makes up a substantial proportion of all workers in such occupational groups as: health professionals (27%), IT and telecommunication (23%), nursing and midwifery (22%), caring (19%), and transport (18%)3

Figure 1, below, illustrates the occupational distribution among all essential workers in the UK, as estimated by the ONS Annual Population Survey (ASP), compared with proportions in our survey sample4

  • While among all essential workers in the UK, 31% worked in health and social care occupations, their proportion was comparable but slightly lower among Polish people in our sample – 28%. 
  • The largest group among our respondents – almost 35% – worked in food and other necessary goods production, processing, sales or delivery. This is 21 percentage points more than all essential workers (14%).
  • In contrast, Polish essential workers in our survey were less often employed than all essential workers in education and childcare (7% vs 20%, respectively).

Focusing now only on our Polish survey (see Figure 2), we see an interesting split in occupations by gender: 

  • Male respondents more often worked in food and other necessary goods occupations, while women in our sample more often worked in health and social care. 
  • Employment in utility services (such as cleaning, postal, energy, and sewerage services) was less common among men in comparison to women. Anecdotally, this may be due to significant overrepresentation of Polish women in cleaning roles.
  • Men, on the other hand, more often worked in transport and transport supporting occupations. 
  • Education and childcare was another important sector of work for Polish women, while communication and finance – for men.

To read more about our survey have a look at our previous blog here.


  1. UK Government, 8 January 2020, Children of critical workers and vulnerable children who can access schools or educational settings: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/coronavirus-covid-19-maintaining-educational-provision/guidance-for-schools-colleges-and-local-authorities-on-maintaining-educational-provision
  2. Scottish Government, 11 May 2020, Coronavirus (COVID-19): prioritisation matrix for key workers to be tested: https://www.gov.scot/publications/coronavirus-covid-19-access-to-testing/
  3. This estimation was done for sectors where over 70% of jobs are considered to be ‘essential’: Fernández-Reino, M., Sumption, M., & Vargas-Silva, C. (2020). From low-skilled to key workers: the implications of emergencies for immigration policy. Oxford Review of Economic Policy, 36(Supplement_1), S382-S396.
  4. Presented data from our survey was proportionally weighted by UK country, as we oversampled outside England (e.g. in Scotland).