Essential workers: visible and invisible, organised and unorganised


James Wickham03/02/2022

What about the workers?

The pandemic led to a continual discussion of working from home and its consequences for everything from domestic life to urban planning.  However, there has been relatively little discussion of the vast numbers of ‘essential workers’ who had to keep working as before.  At the start of the pandemic some were visible, their sacrifices were recognised, their commitment applauded and to some extent at least their conditions were protected.  Other essential workers however were invisible, unorganised and largely unprotected.

Who were the essential workers?

An early ESRI study[1] identified six ‘essential’ occupational groups in Ireland: health professionals, health associate professionals, other health employees, armed forces, defence and public administration, retail sales, transport operatives. On this basis essential employees amounted to 22.01 % of all Irish employees.  However, this categorisation took no account of either agricultural work or key areas of manufacturing that were included in the government’s initial definition in March 2020 when the lock-down was introduced.   Over the course of the lock-down the boundary between essential and non-essential work shifted.  Since so many essential workers had young children, not surprisingly childcare workers suddenly also became essential.  Rather less in the limelight, some construction sites were defined as essential and builders were required to keep working. 

Somewhere around a quarter of Irish workers were thus ‘essential’: they could not work from home and had to work as before.  As we shall see, some essential workers, probably in fact the majority, had voice.  In other words, they were able to make their concerns public, they had representative organisations, they had rights in their workplace. The pandemic also added the issue of social visibility, that is the way in which some workers were noticed and recognised as being essential.  By contrast, many other workers, however essential their work, lacked voice and recognition.  Often working in precarious employment with no rights and with no representation, they remained silent, isolated and not part of any public discussion.

Essential workers – represented or silenced?

Healthcare workers were unsurprisingly most affected by COVID. According to an early CSO study[2] nurses and midwives comprised 6 % of all cases but only 2 % of the (2016) population.  At the start of the pandemic there was a shortage of PPE (Personal Protective Equipment), protocols were only being developed, high incidence levels meant staff absences which in turn increased staff shortage and staff pressure. Staff at all levels were exhausted and reporting burn out. However, in the institutional settings in which they worked doctors and nurses were able to voice concerns directly to management through representative organisations.

The situation in elder care was very different. While about a quarter of the care workforce is directly employed by the HSE, most care workers are employed either by private companies or by agencies. Carers are almost entirely female, and especially in the private sector include a significant proportion of immigrants. During lockdown many hospitals continued to be granted permits for large numbers of immigrant workers, while many nursing homes were granted individual work permits[3].  Internationally and in Ireland, nursing homes were breeding grounds for the disease.  While state interventions focused on immediate safety issues, staffing levels remained inadequate and there was little change in the employment model.  Without any representation and so without any voice, workers here remained essential - and silenced.

Unlike nurses, retail workers had never been publicly considered to be 'essential', but at the start of the pandemic they were quickly identified in media and government statements as 'frontline workers'. Especially in the first lock down they benefited from the widespread public recognition that nurses already enjoyed. Although unionisation is low, management were under pressure for their staff not to be discontented. At least one major store gave special bonus payments to staff.  

In the transport sector public transport was curtailed but continued to run with massive state subsidies, workers were not laid off and safety precautions were rapidly introduced. Like retail workers, public transport workers benefited from the public nature of their work; they also had effective union representation.  By contrast in the private sector services were curtailed, some workers were laid off and safety measures appeared more ad hoc. Courier and delivery services expanded, but riders complained that their actual earnings were reduced. Most workers here are essentially on bogus self-employment and despite several brief public protests in both Dublin and Cork by riders, overall employment conditions remained unchanged.

Approximately 15,000, mostly male, workers are employed in Irish meat factories. Overall immigrants make up about 30 % of this workforce, and during the pandemic work permits continued to be granted to meat plants. Meat plants were one of the major centres for COVID, but without union representation and with only indirect representation through supporting NGOs such as Migrant Rights Centre Ireland (MRCI), meat plant workers were voiceless.

Two steps to end the silence

During the pandemic some groups of essential workers were silenced and unrecognised.  Two feasible measures would help to change this.  It turns out that both issues are now the focus of proposed European Union initiatives.

Workers in meat plants and residential care homes were often agency workers, so the owners of these workplaces could evade responsibility for their wages and conditions; many such workers were on visas which made the workers beholden to their employer for continued legal residence in Ireland; many delivery riders were legally self-employed and thus had no employment protection whatsoever.  For all such workers in precarious employment representation and voice was effectively impossible. 

By contrast, the pandemic brought out the advantages of standard employment for workers, for employers and for social policy generally.  Workers who lost their jobs due to the pandemic had clear rights to the PUP; workers who had to stay away from work because of COVID had immediate access to the new sick COVID-19 Enhanced Illness Benefit; it was easier for employers to stay in touch with valuable workers who were temporarily laid off.   

Instead of allowing employers to find ever more ways to evade their responsibility to employees, public policy therefore needs to roll back the erosion of the standard employment relationship.  One priority is to tackle the scandal of bogus self-employment.  Here the European Commission’s proposed Directive [4]on platform work can make a real contribution.  The Directive could force companies like Deliveroo to finally take responsibility for their workers instead of pretending that they were independent ‘contractors’.

Many essential workers were vulnerable because they had no trade union representation.  Consequently their wages and conditions were simply imposed by the employers.  The second step is to expand trade union bargaining coverage to these workers.  Currently, approximately 30 % of all Irish workers are covered by sectoral agreements (agreements between unions and employers which apply to all workers in a particular sector.

The European Commission’s current Minimum Wage Directive[5] has proposed that that member states should aim for a minimum of 70 % bargaining coverage. A realistic strategy to achieve this would build on the existing Joint Labour Committees (JLCs). Joint Labour Committees are sectoral organisations comprising an equal number of employer and worker representatives; the chair is appointed by the government. Where there is an Employment Regulation Order in place the JLC can set the basic wage for the sector[1].   There are currently JLCs operating in security and contract cleaning where the JLCs have helped ensure that minimum pay rates are enforced in the sectors; they provided a floor for vulnerable essential workers during the pandemic.  

JLCs in the residential care and meat processing sectors would enable a voice and recognition for two groups of vulnerable essential workers. Crucially JLCs would provide a forum in which to wean employers from their anti-union stance and entice them towards the more co-operative position characteristic of other employers in other sectors.

During the pandemic the Irish welfare state expanded massively in terms of temporary benefits, but left employment conditions mostly as before.  The permanent protection of vulnerable workers requires changes in their conditions of employment.



This blog is based on the Irish case study for a report ‘Revaluation of working conditions and wages for essential workers’ prepared for the Employment and Social Affairs Committee of the European Parliament.

1]. Redmond, P. and McGuinness, S., 2020, Essential Employees During the Covid-19 Crisis, ESRI Surveys Statistical Report Series Number 85 May 2020.

[2]. CSO (Central Statistics Office), 2020, A Profile of COVID-19 in Ireland - Using Census 2016 Household Data to Analyse COVID-19 Cases from March to November 2020. Available at:

[3]. DETE (Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation), 2021, Employment Permit Statistics 2020: tatistical tables and company listings for permits in 2020, 

Available at:


[5]. European Commission, 2020, Proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on adequate minimum wages in the European Union, Brussels, COM(2020) 682.


Posted in: Democratic accountabilityEconomicsLabour marketWelfare

Professor James Wickham

James Wickham

James Wickham was Jean Monnet Professor of European Labour Market Studies and Professor in Sociology at Trinity College Dublin. He has published widely on employment, transport and migration in Ireland and Europe; he is the author of Gridlock: Dublin’s Transport Crisis and the Future of the City and co-author of New Mobilities in Europe: Polish Migration to Ireland post-2004.  His book Unequal Europe: Social divisions and social cohesion in an old continent analysed the collapse of the European Social Model; his new text book European Societies (Routledge 2020) examines the structures of inequality in contemporary Europe.  He is a former director of TASC. 



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