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).

Interviews completed

Key milestone achieved! We have just finished interviewing. We have conducted 50 online interviews in total: 40 with Polish essential workers in the UK and 10 with key stakeholders providing support to migrant workers in the country. We originally planned to conduct 30 interviews with Polish workers but ended up doing 10 more having obtained extra research funding at the University of Glasgow. Massive thank you Glasgow Uni!

Our online survey

Our online survey about the impacts of Covid-19 on Polish essential workers was active for 8 weeks, from 15 February to 12 April 2021, and about 1,100 Polish essential workers living in the UK left valid responses. We were interested to hear from Poles who lived in the UK for at least three months in 2020 and worked in one of the officially recognised essential work occupations. 

We used a combination of convenience sampling via social media and our partner organisations, and recruitment through a targeted Facebook Ad Campaign. The latter method has become increasingly popular recently in studies of health, migrants, and other ‘hard-to-reach’ populations. 66% of our respondents were recruited via the Facebook ads, which displayed the invitation to Poles living in the UK, from 27 February until 26 of March (see Figure 1).

To make sure we had good representation from all over the UK, we purposefully oversampled outside England: 56% of our survey participants lived in England, 34% in Scotland, while the remaining 10% in other UK countries or Crown Dependencies. In terms of legal status in the UK, most participants had already secured settled or pre-settled status (81%) and 9% held British citizenship.

67% of our respondents identified as women, 32% as men, and 1% as non-binary (this also included responses: ‘other gender identity’ and ‘prefer not to say’). The high percentage of women might reflect the feminisation of some essential work occupations, such as health and care sectors. A comparison of age distribution by gender in our sample against the latest data from the Annual Population Survey (APS; Poles aged 18-65 N=2,218), indicates fairly similar age representation among male respondents, with our sample having more women aged 40-44, and less younger women. 

It is worth noting that APS data is a year older (some Poles might have left by 2021 or ‘moved’ into older age groups) and the displayed data covers Polish migrants working in various occupations, not only those defined as ‘essential work’. More comprehensive data which we could compare our sample to will come when the Census 2021 data is collected (in Scotland) and released (England, Wales and Northern Ireland).

Future blogs will provide more detail on the sample as well as explore various impacts of Covid-19 on Polish essential workers more closely. 

Interviews in progress

Fieldwork update! We are currently conducting online interviews with Polish essential workers in the UK and key stakeholders providing support to migrant workers in the country. If you wish to get involved in the study either as a Polish essential worker or someone who works with migrant workers, please contact us: HERE.

Survey closed

Our online survey is now closed. We wish to thank all respondents for taking the time to contribute and sharing thoughts. We have over 1,000 responses, which is a fantastic result. The aim of the survey is to map Covid-19 impacts on Polish essential workers in the UK. The survey was live for eight weeks and was promoted via social media (incl. targeted Facebook adverts), with the help of our partner organisations and via chain referral. Thank you everyone who helped spread the word! More details soon.

Our survey is live!

We have launched our online survey today! The aim of the survey is to map Covid-19 impacts on Polish essential workers in the UK. It is anonymous, dual-language (English and Polish) and will remain live for eight weeks until 12 April 2021. The survey participants can opt in to take part in a draw to win a £100 or £50 voucher. Are you Polish and work in the UK in one of the essential work sectors? Do you know anyone who may want to get involved? Please, spread the word! Details: HERE

Our team has expanded :-)

We are very excited to welcome Dr Paulina Trevena to our team! Paulina is an expert in Polish and Eastern European migration to the UK. Her work has focused on lived experiences of social and geographical mobility, work and employment, mental health, well-being, and integration. She has a strong track record in policy-oriented research, including commissioned work for the Scottish Government, a prestigious Academic Fellowship with the Scottish Parliament, and collaboration with charities. We are so lucky to have you, Paulina!