Covid-19 has exposed the UK’s socio-economic dependence on a chronically insecure migrant essential workforce. While risking their lives to offset the devastating effects of the pandemic, migrant workers reportedly find themselves in precarious professional and personal circumstances (e.g. temporary zero-hours contracts, with limited access to adequate health and financial support including Universal Credit).

Given their critical role in ‘protecting the NHS and saving lives’ and their structurally disadvantaged position, we need to know more about the health, social, economic and cultural impacts of Covid-19 on their lives, and whether these impacts coincide with migrants’ intentions to stay in the UK. To explore these issues with an adequate level of nuance and detail, this study focuses on one prominent migrant group, Polish migrants, as a case study. The project investigates how the pandemic affects their everyday lives and settlement plans in the UK.

Methodologically, the project involves an online survey to map Covid-19 impacts on Polish essential workers in the UK, online interviews with Polish essential workers and expert interviews with key stakeholders providing information and support to migrant workers in the UK. 

The project is being carried out by a group of researchers at the University of Glasgow, Middlesex University and the University of Sheffield with the support of the Polish Social and Cultural Association (POSK), the Polish Expats Association, Fife Migrants Forum and PKAVS Minority Communities Hub.

The project is funded by the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) via the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) – project reference: ES/V015877/1. It runs between November 2020 and May 2023.


Essential work is the type of work that is key for keeping British society and economy running during the pandemic. Hence, essential workers (sometimes also referred to as ‘frontline workers’ or ‘key workers’) are for example health and care workers and volunteers, staff maintaining public safety (e.g. police, fire service) or delivering pivotal services such as public transport, food production and sale, product delivery, justice, religious and mortuary services, postal services, cleaning and maintenance of public and communal spaces, among others. In the study, we are interested in Polish essential workers in the UK who are either formally employed (e.g. have an employment contract, own a company or are self-employed) or work informally (e.g. cash-in hand work).


Polish migrants constitute the most numerous non-British nationality in the UK (around 815,000 in 2020) and make up around 9% of the UK’s foreign-born population. Polish has been the most common non-UK nationality since 2007 and Poland is currently the second most common country of birth.

Polish migrants are employed in different essential work roles and sectors across the UK, including nearly 10,000 in the NHS. As such, Polish essential workers constitute a large and varied group for statistical and qualitative analyses. Previous research shows that Poles face increased uncertainty about their lives in the UK due to their precarious situation in the context of Brexit. Covid-19 is likely to amplify these concerns alongside adding new distinctive challenges. We need to understand these additional challenges in order to support and retain UK’s largest migrant group during and after Covid-19.