Work and employment are not synonyms

Work and employment may be used indistinctly in everyday language, but for the labour market they mean very different things. Employment is a very specific form of work. Other forms of work include volunteer work, unpaid trainee work and work for own use.
Work and employment are not synonyms

In everyday language, work and employment are synonyms. We use them interchangeably to refer to how we make a living.

In everyday language, we can afford to be vague or use approximate words. We are simply trying to make ourselves understood. So, we are not forced to look for the most precise word at every turn. 

Synonyms for work include employment (for everyday language, but not for statistical jargon).



However, things are very different in the world of statistics. We produce statistics to have an accurate picture of the state of the world. Statistics help make the invisible visible. They bring issues to light and force us to face facts. But for all that, we must be precise in how we define each term used in statistical collection. We must be precise in what we include under each label.


Work and employment

Until recently, labour statistics focused only on one specific type of work: work done for pay or profit and for use by others. This type of work is what in labour statistics jargon we call employment.

Employment = any activity to produce goods or provide services for pay or profit.

After a long history of overlooking all types of work that were not employment (thus also overlooking their impact on production, the economy and societies), the international community finally recognized the need to measure all forms of work at the 19th International Conference of Labour Statisticians in 2013. Realizing that employment represented only a small portion of all work done by people around the world, we decided to come up with a precise statistical definition of work, encompassing all forms of work.

Work = any activity performed by persons of any sex and age to produce goods or to provide services for use by others or for own use.


Forms of work framework

It was also necessary to clearly identify and define each possible form of work. For this, we followed two main criteria. First, whether the work was paid or unpaid. Second, whether it was intended for use by others or for own use. This lead us to define the following forms of work:

– Employment: any activity to produce goods or provide services for pay or profit (paid and for use by others).
– Unpaid trainee work: any unpaid activity to produce goods or provide services for others in order to acquire workplace experience or skills in a trade or profession.
– Volunteer work: any unpaid non-compulsory activity to produce goods or provide services for others.
– Own-use production work: any activity to produce goods or provide services for own final use is one form of work, but not the only one.

Although we tried to cover as many work activities as possible, this list is not exhaustive. Indeed, there may be other forms of work not included here.

This framework defines several forms of work, including employment, unpaid trainee work, volunteer work and own-use production work.

Main form of work

It is possible (and even common) to be involved in more than one form of work at once. For instance, employed people may volunteer or grow their own vegetables. Unpaid interns may have a job on the side to support themselves. Volunteers may be making their own clothing or building their own furniture or doing an unpaid internship, and so on.

For people involved in more than one form of work, there is one which would be their main form of work. When identifying someone’s main form of work, employment takes priority. Therefore, if one of the forms of work in which the person participates is employment, then the person would be considered employed.


Forms of work and labour force status

Employment is not only a form of work, it is also a labour force status. People’s labour force status refers to their participation in the labour force. That is, whether or not they make up the supply of labour available in the economy for producing goods or services in exchange for remuneration.


Labour force = current supply of labour for the production of goods and services in exchange for pay or profit.

Employment is a form of work and a labour force status

For employed people, their main form of work and their labour force status are the same: employment. For people whose main form of work is something different than employment, their labour force status depends on whether or not they are looking for a job and whether or not they are available for one. Those who are not employed but are seeking and available for employment are considered unemployed, and the rest are outside the labour force.

Unemployment = people of working age not in employment, looking for employment and available for employment.

The unemployed and people outside the labour force are by definition not in employment. Nonetheless, they may be actively participating in other forms of work, contributing to the economy and the community. For example, retired people, homemakers and students (usually outside the labour force) may be doing volunteer or own-use production work. Similarly, someone in unemployment may volunteer or do an unpaid internship while looking for a job.


For more information on the forms of work framework, please see the resolution adopted by the 19th International Conference of Labour Statisticians.

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