Essential services

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Essential services may refer to a class of occupations that have been legislated by a government to have special restrictions in regard to labour actions, such as not being allowed to legally strike.

The International Labour Office, a United Nations agency, makes distinctions between an essential service and a minimum service.[1]

582. What is meant by essential services in the strict sense of the term depends to a large extent on the particular circumstances prevailing in a country. Moreover, this concept is not absolute, in the sense that a non-essential service may become essential if a strike lasts beyond a certain time or extends beyond a certain scope, thus endangering the life, personal safety or health of the whole or part of the population.
585. The following may be considered to be essential services:
  • the hospital sector
  • electricity services ...;
  • water supply services ...;
  • the telephone service ...;
  • the police and the armed forces ...;
  • the fire-fighting services ...;
  • public or private prison services ...;
  • the provision of food to pupils of school age and the cleaning of schools ...;
  • air traffic control ….
587. The following do not constitute essential services in the strict sense of the term:
  • radio and television ...;
  • the petroleum sector ...;
  • ports ...;
  • banking ...;
  • computer services for the collection of excise duties and taxes ...;
  • department stores and pleasure parks ...;
  • the metal and mining sectors ...;
  • transport generally ...;
  • airline pilots ...;
  • production, transport and distribution of fuel ...;
  • railway services ...;
  • metropolitan transport ...;
  • postal services ...
  • refuse collection services ...;
  • refrigeration enterprises ...;
  • hotel services ...;
  • automobile manufacturing ...;
  • agricultural activities, the supply and distribution of foodstuffs ...;
  • the Mint ...;
  • Paramedics and ambulances ....;
  • the government printing service and the state alcohol, salt and tobacco monopolies ...;
  • the education sector ...;
  • mineral water bottling company ….

While maintaining a right to strike, the ILO recognizes situations and conditions under which a minimum operational service could be required.

606. The establishment of minimum services in the case of strike action should only be possible in: (1) services the interruption of which would endanger the life,
personal safety or health of the whole or part of the population (essential services in the strict sense of the term); (2) services which are not essential in the strict
sense of the term but where the extent and duration of a strike might be such as to result in an acute national crisis endangering the normal living conditions of
the population; and (3) in public services of fundamental importance.

Examples where the ILO considered conditions met for a minimum operational service include a ferry service, ports, underground railway, transportation of passengers and commercial goods, postal services, refuse collection service, the mint, banking services, petroleum sector services, education services, and animal health services.


  1. ^ International Labour Organization, Freedom of association - Digest of decisions and principles of the Freedom of Association Committee of the Governing Body of the ILO. Fifth (revised) edition, 2006.