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Essential yet vulnerable

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Immigrant key workers in the European COVID-19 labor market

As the COVID-19 pandemic swept across Europe, it exposed the indispensable role of key workers. These individuals, often overlooked, became the backbone of essential services, from healthcare to logistics, ensuring the continuity of daily life amidst unprecedented challenges.

In our recent IZA Discussion Paper, we examine the role of immigrant key workers in Europe during the COVID-19 pandemic shedding light on the critical yet often undervalued contributions of these individuals. Our analysis is based on individual survey data on more than 3 million workers in 12 EU countries collected in 2018, 2019, and 2020 in the EU Labour Force Survey (EU-LFS). The EU-LFS is a large household survey that combines and harmonizes micro-data from the Labour Force Surveys collected by the national statistical institutes of each EU Member State.

We distinguish two groups of migrant workers according to their country of birth: EU mobile and Extra EU migrants, identified as workers born in an EU Member State other than the one where they currently work and reside, and workers born outside of the European Union.

Immigrant workers were more likely to be employed as key workers compared to native populations, especially in sectors that require lower qualifications. On average, migrant workers made up 16% of essential workers at the beginning of the pandemic, despite comprising 13% of the workforce at that time. This overrepresentation is particularly noticeable in low-qualified roles.

We uncover a V-shaped relationship between education level and key worker status, where both highly educated and less educated migrants are likely to be key workers. Notably, women, particularly migrant women, represent a significant portion of key workers, highlighting the gender-specific nature of key worker roles.

During the pandemic, these migrant key workers often had to extend their working hours. Despite their critical contributions, they faced a higher probability of job loss than their native counterparts. Similar to other vulnerable segments of the workforce, such as women or minority individuals, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities, widening existing gaps in the labor market, and exposing the weakest workers to the hardest conditions.
This disparity underscores the need for policies that recognize the vital role of migrant workers and address the disparities they face.

The research calls for a reevaluation of the labor market to ensure equitable treatment and support for these essential workers. It suggests that supportive measures could include fair compensation, job security, and access to social protections. The study's findings serve as a foundation for policymakers to develop strategies that acknowledge and bolster the resilience of Europe's labor force during times of crisis, ensuring that the rights and contributions of all workers are recognized and supported.

© Francesco Fasani and Jacopo Mazza 

Francesco Fasani is Associate Professor at the Department of Economics, Management and Quantitative Methods (DEMM) at University of Milan and IZA Research Fellow
Jacopo Mazza is assistant professor at the School of Economics of Utrecht University

Please note:
We recognize that IZA World of Labor articles may prompt discussion and possibly controversy. Opinion pieces, such as the one above, capture ideas and debates concisely, and anchor them with real-world examples. Opinions stated here do not necessarily reflect those of the IZA.

Related IZA World of Labor content:
Labor market impact of Covid-19 on immigrants by Hugh Cassidy
Covid-19 and the youth-to-adult unemployment gap by Francesco Pastore
Firms, sorting, and the immigrant-native earnings gap by Benoit Dostie
Low wage employment by Claus Schnabel

Photo by Vladimir Fedotov on Unsplash