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:

587. The following do not constitute essential services in the strict sense of the term:

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 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.

"Essential services" may also refer to those services that are vital to the health and welfare of a population and therefore are essential to maintain even in a disaster.[2] During the 2019–20 coronavirus pandemic, many jurisdictions ordered non-essential services to close for a period of several weeks in an effort to control the spread of the virus.[3] The United States Department of Homeland Security's Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency issued a nation-wide guidance document that defined activities that the Agency had determined to be "essential" to the control of the pandemic and the management of its effects.[4]

Examples of industries where at least some workers were classified as "essential" during the pandemic included:

  • Health Care/ Public Health / Human Services
  • Law Enforcement, Public Safety, First Responders
  • Food and Agriculture
  • Energy
  • Waste and Wastewater
  • Transportation and Logistics
  • Public Works
  • Communications and Information Technology
  • Other Community-Based Essential Functions and Government Operations
  • Critical Manufacturing
  • Supply Chains
  • Retail and Wholesaling
  • Food Services and Accommodations
  • Institutional, Residential, Commercial and Industrial Maintenance
  • Manufacturing and Production
  • Construction
  • Financial activities
  • Resources
  • Environmental Services
  • Utilities and Community Services
  • Communications Industries
  • Research
  • Justice Sector
  • Business Regulators and Inspectors


  1. ^ International Labour Organization Archived October 24, 2011, at the Wayback Machine, 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.
  2. ^ Pan American Health Organization. "DISASTER MANAGEMENT: MAINTENANCE OF ESSENTIAL SERVICES". Retrieved March 27, 2020.
  3. ^ (1) "COVID-19: Essential Services". Archived from the original on March 26, 2020. Retrieved March 27, 2020.
    (2) staff, Web (March 24, 2020). "What is an essential service in Ontario?". CP24. Archived from the original on March 27, 2020. Retrieved March 27, 2020.
    (3) AuthorIANS. "COVID-19 Lockdown: What constitutes essential services, and how govt responds". Telangana Today. Archived from the original on March 27, 2020. Retrieved March 27, 2020.
  4. ^ "Guidance on the Essential Critical Infrastructure Workforce: Ensuring Community and National Resilience in COVID-19 Response" (PDF). Washington, D.C.: United States Department of Homeland Security: Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency: Office of the Director. March 28, 2020. Archived (PDF) from the original on April 2, 2020. Retrieved April 3, 2020.