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New ILO database updates work-related indicators to meet latest standards

The framework on work statistics has been widely publicized over the years, particularly to data producers and policymakers, as it was designed to improve labour market and gender analysis. But little has been said to data users interested in international comparisons. Until now. Here is the ILOSTAT solution to handling the impacts of revised definitions occurring on different schedules across the globe.

Why a new database?

As part of its remit for setting international standards, the ILO develops standards in labour statistics. These are introduced through the adoption of resolutions and guidelines at the International Conference of Labour Statisticians (ICLS). Major changes occurred between the standards adopted at the 13th ICLS in 1982 and those adopted three decades later at the 19th ICLS in 2013. These changes reflect several objectives, all designed to increase the range and meaningfulness of work and labour force statistics. One important goal was to address significant gender data gaps, such as a deficit of information on unpaid work, predominantly performed by women.

Most notably, the 19th ICLS standards expanded the scope of labour statistics by recognizing the need to collect data on different forms of work, both paid and unpaid. To this end, it more narrowly defined employment as work done for pay or profit. Activities not done in exchange for remuneration (i.e., own-use production work, volunteer work and unpaid trainee work) were recognized as other forms of work.

The revisions to definitions introduced by the 19th ICLS created major breaks in series for many countries. This hinders trend analysis. More specifically, the revised standards result in lower employment-to-population ratios and higher rates of labour underutilization. This is especially the case for developing countries where many workers are engaged in own-use production work. 

In addition, countries are implementing the revised standards at different times. That is, indicator definitions differ across countries depending on which standards are in place for a given year. This makes international comparisons problematic if data are published based on only one set of standards. 

What's available?

To address the challenges posed by evolving statistical standards, the ILO separated databases on ILOSTAT based on concepts and definitions. A new Work Statistics – 19th ICLS (WORK) database provides data based on the revised statistical standards. The indicators and classifications are like those of the Labour Force Statistics (LFS) database, with added content specific to the 19th ICLS. For example, the new database includes indicators on other forms of work, such as own-use production work and volunteer work. The WORK database currently covers 77 countries

Meanwhile, the LFS and related databases use concepts and definitions from previous statistical standards (13th ICLS). To the extent possible, the ILO produces country-level data according to both sets of standards and publishes them on ILOSTAT. Users should note that the databases based on the 13th ICLS cover a larger number of countries, indicators and breakdowns since many countries have yet to implement the revised standards. 

How is the data produced?

The ILO produces data for the WORK and other databases from household surveys through microdata processing. The ILOSTAT Microdata Processing Quick Guide describes the main principles and methods underlying this process. Among the many benefits, microdata processing allows the ILO to ensure a higher level of compliance with internationally agreed statistical standards. This favours the harmonization and comparability of data across countries and over time. 

To provide databases based on different sets of standards, the ILO creates two separate micro datasets with harmonized ILO variables for each country whenever possible. The main difference between the datasets for a given country is the operational criteria used to define employment. This affects all variables related to employment characteristics (for example, occupation and economic activity). It also implies changes in the identification of the unemployed and persons outside the labour force.

The ILO can produce both datasets only if the national household survey includes questions that capture subsistence foodstuff producers. To follow the revised definitions, employment must exclude this group, which is a subset of workers producing goods for their own final use.

Concluding remarks

Work statistics for countries not using the same set of statistical standards are not comparable. As such, each database on ILOSTAT contains only series comparable within and across countries, allowing data users to continue making meaningful time series analysis and international comparisons. As more countries adopt the revised standards, ILOSTAT contents will be adjusted accordingly. 

Learn more

To learn more on this topic, read the Quick guide to understanding the impact of the new statistical standards on ILOSTAT databases. It explains the differences between the 13th and 19th ICLS standards, the impact of the revisions on headline indicators, and how the ILO handles this on ILOSTAT.


The 19th ICLS introduced numerous changes. Simply put, the new framework:

  • introduces new forms of work,
  • narrows the definition of employment, and
  • expands the set of measures for labour underutilization.

For details, refer to the ILOSTAT page on the forms of work framework

The standards adopted in 1982 (13th ICLS) have played an important role in enabling the expansion of availability of labour statistics. However, limitations have emerged over time, such as a lack of separate recognition of various types of unpaid work, inconsistent application of concepts across countries, and an insufficient range of indicators to describe the labour market and its evolution. The revised standards seek to address these limitations, while retaining and supplementing core indicators on employment and unemployment.

Among other objectives, an important goal is to address significant gender data gaps (see for example this report by Data2x), such as a deficit of information on unpaid work, predominantly performed by women.

Comparing results based on the two sets of standards shows that there can be substantial differences for headline indicators. The main difference introduced by the 19th ICLS standards is that the own-use production of goods is no longer considered employment. Thus, employment levels and employment-to-population ratios will be lower in countries where these activities are common. This is particularly the case in low- and low-middle-income countries. Meanwhile, rates of labour underutilization, including unemployment rates,  will be higher. For details, refer to the quick guide on ILOSTAT and the 19th ICLS.

Data based on the new concepts and definitions significantly enhance our understanding of women’s and men’s contributions to their households, their communities, and the economy through both paid and unpaid work. Learn more in the section Gender and the 19th ICLS on the ILOSTAT topic page on women.

This depends on your data needs. If country coverage is the most important, you will most likely use a database based on the 13th ICLS. Please remember not to mix and match indicators across databases since these are not comparable.

There are currently 77 countries with indicators based on the 19th ICLS. This number is expected to grow over time as more countries adopt the revised statistical standards.

The ILO is working closely with national statistical offices, including through its regional offices, to ensure they are aware of the latest statistical standards and plan on implementing these at some stage. However, the implementation of statistical standards can be time- and resource-intensive (i.e., costly). It is not unusual for countries to take a decade or longer to implement the latest standards.

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  • Marie-Claire Sodergren

    Marie-Claire is a Senior Economist in the Data Production and Analysis Unit of the ILO Department of Statistics. She oversees data collection through the annual ILOSTAT questionnaire and is a key ILO focal point for SDG reporting. She spearheaded the development of the ILOSTAT portal and currently oversees content creation and serves as editor-in-chief for the blog. Previously, she held key roles at the U.S. Bureau of Labour Statistics, including Supervisory Economist and acting Chief of the Division of International Labor Comparisons.

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