Maintaining labour migration in essential sectors in time of pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic had a significant impact on the flow of migrants who planned to enter the EU and OECD countries as workers in essential sectors (e.g. health- and care- workers, hospital auxiliary staff, agricultural workers) as well as those who were residing on a temporary or renewable basis for the purpose of work in these sectors. How did EU & OECD countries respond to the need to prevent labour market shortages during the COVID-19 crisis? An answer to this and other questions can be found in the Inform.

The EMN and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) have launched a collaboration that will result in 5 Informs on the impact of COVID-19 in different areas of migration in the EU Member States (including Belgium), Norway and the UK.

The third Inform has now been published. It focuses on labour migration in essential sectors.

A few key findings: 

  • Across EU and OECD countries, the spread of COVID-19 resulted in the imposition of restrictions on admission. As foreigners (third-country nationals in the EU) were subject to more restrictions, entry of new workers was sharply curtailed in most countries. 
  • Despite the general restrictions, most EU and OECD countries identified specific occupational sectors that were considered as essential or ‘key’ and that justified continued admission during the COVID-19 crisis, based on specific guidelines. In the EU, for example, many Member States applied the European Commission’s guidance or adapted and/or drew on some of the occupations included in their national guidelines to meet labour market needs. A small number of countries did not establish a list of key occupational sectors; however, measures to facilitate the admission of third-country national workers to those sectors were applied. Such discretionary exemptions appear in a number of non-EU OECD countries for occupations considered essential or in the “national interest”. 
  •  In a small number of countries, new policies or procedures entered into force, concerning mainly workers in the health, agriculture and transport sectors.
  •  Many EU and OECD countries applied some exemptions from health measures for migrant workers in essential occupations/sectors to facilitate entry into the territory and rapid access to the labour market. Such exemptions included shorter or no quarantine periods, alternative types of quarantine (e.g. self-isolation but able to work; avoiding contact with vulnerable categories) or less strict health measures (e.g. proof of negative test results substituting quarantine).
  • Several countries implemented measures which aimed at facilitating access to the labour market for foreigners (in the EU, third country nationals) already residing in their territory in order to address labour shortages in essential sectors, especially agriculture and healthcare. A few of them granted or extended the right to work in essential sectors to asylum seekers; facilitated changes in status or introduced flexibilities to improve access to work in key sectors. Regularisation of third-country nationals who had been employed in certain key sectors was also permitted in a limited number of cases.
  • Many countries reported that when they introduced temporary measures, they were not prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic to also change the underlying policy for management of legal migration flows.

The joint EMN / OECD Inform can be found above.

On 21 October 2020 a webinar was organised about this Inform, which was livestreamed on Youtube. If you have missed this webinar, you can still watch a video of it below. 


This Inform is the third of 5 Informs on the impact of COVID-19. Each Inform covers the COVID-19 impact on a different area of migration:

  • residence permits and unemployment (already published, please click (already published, please click here);
  • international students (already published, please click here);
  • maintaining key legal migration flows (please see above);
  • reduction or loss of remittances;
  • and return issues.

The publication of the last three Informs is foreseen in the coming months. About each of these Informs, a webinar will normally be organised. 


Publication Date:
wo 04 nov 2020