Protest of essential workers during the COVID-19 pandemic


The COVID-19 pandemic has had a wide and deep impact on the world of work, and has exerted huge pressures on workers in many sectors of employment. “Essential workers” have kept vital services functioning even as large swathes of economic activity came to a standstill. Essential workers were found in many sectors, including health and social care, essential public services like fire brigades, public safety, and education, as well as transport, logistics, and frontline retail work. Hence the pandemic underlined the importance not just of health workers but of other occupational groups whose work had previously been overlooked and undervalued.

Many of these essential frontline jobs exposed workers to the dangers of COVID-19 transmission, in too many cases ending in tragic deaths. However, while the public view of many essential occupational groups may have been challenged (for instance, with many new references to the “heroism” of frontline workers), even more important was the ability of essential workers to influence their own working conditions. Given the new and unforeseen challenges of the pandemic for workers, and the speed and urgency of many changes, workers have had to experiment with new forms of interest representation and new ways of making their voice heard, with consequences which may endure beyond COVID-19.

In this project, we will analyse forms and voice of interest representation of essential workers during the COVID19 pandemic and beyond.

This work has been funded by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), No. 40369700/0; No 40342522/2; No 40342522/1.

Research overview

With a novel methodology searching news events from the world’s largest news agencies via the online GDELT project, we document protests by keyworkers against their working conditions in 90 countries- specifically in retail and healthcare. We offer the first global dataset of labour unrest by keyworkers during the pandemic, showing what motivated them to protest, what methods they used, and which organisations represented them.

In retail, we considered supermarkets and other food and grocery shops in the formal economy, including delivering groceries, as part of essential retail. For the healthcare sector, we looked at hospitals, clinics and health care centres, as well as all occupations at these workplaces including doctors, nurses, cleaners, paramedics, midwives, etc.

Key findings

The findings reveal that the first wave of COVID-19 lockdowns inspired a large global wave of worker protest. This was frequently motivated by weaknesses in health and safety measures, such as the provision of personal protective equipment (PPE). However, throughout the pandemic, workers continued to protest over “bread and butter” issues like pay. Through a series of qualitative vignettes looking at particular country and industry case studies, we show how in many cases workers who have historically suffered from relatively weak pay, job security and representation (as in the retail sector) appeared to become more confident in demanding more equitable treatment.

Nonetheless, we also show how protest was generally more pronounced in healthcare than in retail. We argue this likely reflects the fact that retail workers were more likely to leave their jobs as a result of poor working conditions, thus exercising “exit” rather than “voice”.

Publications and outputs

Our work has contributed to the first ILO social dialogue flagship report: Social Dialogue 2022: Collective bargaining for an inclusive, sustainable and resilient recovery

“The report reflects collective knowledge and experience from around the world from scholars and practitioners. It is based on a review of legal and regulatory frameworks for the application of collective agreements in 125 countries; data on the coverage of collective agreements in 98 countries and trade union density in 140 countries, research into collective agreements and practices in 80 countries in all regions of the world, and survey of employers’ and workers’ organizations.”


Follow us on Twitter

Contact Professor Vera Trappmann