EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Critical occupations in essential services


The term ‘critical occupations’ has taken on a new meaning during the 2020 COVID-19 global crisis. According to the European Commission, critical occupations refer to jobs that have been essential in fighting the pandemic, as well as those that ensure economic continuity in times of crisis and that preserve the European Single Market.

Background and status

Within its framework of measures designed to manage the COVID-19 crisis, the European Commission published guidelines for border management to protect the health of mobile workers and ensure the availability of goods and essential services across the European Union. The guidelines aim to find a balance between ‘the challenge of protecting the health of the population whilst avoiding disruptions to the free movement of persons, and the delivery of goods and essential services across Europe’.

As part of this, the Commission asked Member States not to ‘undertake measures that jeopardise the integrity of the Single Market for goods, in particular of supply chains, or engage in any unfair practices’. In paragraph 23 of these guidelines, the Commission invites Member States to

permit and facilitate the crossing of frontier workers, in particular but not only those working in the health care and food sector, and other essential services (e.g. child care, elderly care, critical staff for utilities) to ensure continued professional activity.

The Commission’s guidelines recognise that certain occupations require a special status, in particular those on the pandemic ‘frontline’ (such as healthcare workers) and those that ensure economic continuity (such as transport workers).

In a communication of 30 March 2020, the Commission gave more details about which workers ‘exercise critical occupations, and for which continued free movement in the EU is deemed essential’.

Nicolas Schmit, the Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights, declared:

Thousands of women and men working hard to keep us safe, healthy and with food on the table need to cross EU borders to go to work. It is our collective responsibility to ensure that they are not hindered in their movement, while taking every precaution to avoid further spread of the pandemic.

The workers identified included frontier workers, posted workers as well as seasonal workers who live in one country but work in another. According to the Communication, many Member States rely on their services for ‘the health care system [and] the provision of other essential services including the setting up and maintenance of medical equipment and infrastructure, or ensuring the supply of goods’.

The communication emphasised that ‘the continued free movement of all workers in critical occupations is essential, including both frontier workers and posted workers’. It also urged Member States to establish specific, burden-free and efficient procedures to ensure the smooth passage of these workers, including proportionate health screening.

The Commission listed a range of ‘workers exercising critical occupations’ for which continued free movement in the EU is deemed essential. These include the following:

  • health professionals including paramedical professionals
  • personal care workers in health services, including care workers for children, persons with disabilities and the elderly
  • scientists in health-related industries
  • workers in the pharmaceutical and medical devices industry
  • workers involved in the supply of goods, in particular for the supply chain of medicines, medical supplies, medical devices and personal protective equipment
  • information and communication technicians and other technicians for the essential maintenance of equipment
  • protective services workers
  • firefighters/police officers/prison guards/security guards/civil protection personnel
  • food manufacturing and processing and related trades and maintenance workers
  • food and related products machine operators (including food production operators)
  • transport workers, in particular: car, van and motorcycle drivers, heavy truck and bus drivers (includes bus and tram drivers) and ambulance drivers, airline pilots, train drivers, maritime and inland navigation workers
  • fishermen
  • staff of public institutions, including international organisations, in critical functions


Member States also identified ‘essential services’ at national level. While a significant majority of workers and citizens were requested to work from or remain at home to help contain the COVID-19 virus, workers in essential services were asked to continue their work.

Related dictionary terms

European Commission free movement of workers frontier worker posted workers Single European Market

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