In 2017, migrant workers accounted for approximately 59 per cent of the world’s international migrant population (ILO, 2018). Crossing national borders to work is one of the key motivations behind international migration, whether driven by economic inequalities, seeking employment, or both. The additional impact of economic, political and environmental crises and shifting demographics, with ageing populations in some parts of the world and a “youth bulge” in others, contribute to rising labour migration (Ozel et al., 2017).
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There is no internationally accepted statistical definition of labour migration. However, the main actors in labour migration are migrant workers, which the International Labour Organization (ILO) defines as:
“… all international migrants who are currently employed or unemployed and seeking employment in their present country of residence.” (ILO, 2015).
The United Nations Statistics Division (UN SD) also provides a statistical definition of a foreign migrant worker:
“Foreigners admitted by the receiving State for the specific purpose of exercising an economic activity remunerated from within the receiving country. Their length of stay is usually restricted as is the type of employment they can hold. Their dependents, if admitted, are also included in this category.” (UN SD, 2017).
While migrant workers are often also international migrants, not all are (see table below). It is important to note the difference between the definition of a foreign migrant worker and an international migrant. An international migrant is defined as:
“any person who changes his or her country of usual residence” (UN DESA, 1998).
Data on international migrant stocks are mostly based on country of birth (if different from country of residence). Where no information on foreign-born is available in censuses, data on international migrant stocks are based on country of citizenship (UN DESA, 2016:4, UN SD, 2017). When defining migrant workers, emphasis is placed on a person’s citizenship rather than their country of birth (ILO, 2015).
|Type of migrant||Is a foreign migrant worker?||Is an international migrant?|
|Citizen of the country of residence who is working and was born in another country||No, as did not move in search of work||Yes, as the country of birth is different from the country of residence (see definition in international migrant stocks)|
|Person born in, and working in the country in question, but who does not have citizenship||Yes||No|
|Citizen returning to work in the country in question after working abroad||No, as holding the citizenship of the country of origin||Yes, due to change in country of residence|
|Border workers (who reside in one country but work in another)*||Yes||No|
According to the ILO, there were an estimated 164 millionmigrant workers globally in 2017. Almost half (46.9%) of all migrant workers were located in two broad sub-regions: North America and Northern, Southern and Western Europe, where 55.4 per cent of all female workers and 40.9 per cent of all male workers were located. 40.8 per cent of all migrant workers resided in the Arab States and 1.0 per cent in Southern Asia, making them the regions with the highest and lowest shares of migrant workers respectively (ILO, 2018).
Among all migrant workers worldwide in 2017, 68.1 millionor approximately 41.6 per centwere female. Male migrant workers made up 95.7 millionor 58.4 per centof the total (ibid.) and outnumbered female migrant workers globally, but with significant regional variations.
Approximately eight per cent of all migrant workers in 2017 were between 15 and 24 years old (ibid.). Of the estimated 150.3 million migrant workers in 2013, 11.5 million were migrant domestic workers (ILO, 2015).
Data sources & measurement
- Population censuses;
- Household surveys;
- Labour force surveys;
- Administrative sources; and
- Statistical sources (ILO, 1994/5).
Administrative sources used to measure migrant worker flows include the measurement of new entry or immigration visas, new permissions issued to work in a country, administrative entry registrations at the border and the apprehension of clandestine border crossers (ibid.). The measurement of migrant worker stocks include accumulated entry or immigration visas, accumulated permission to work in the country, and estimated stocks of undocumented foreign citizens.
Other measurements linked to labour migration include recruitment costs and remittances. Aiming to lower recruitment costs can be an indicator of well-governed labour migration, as reflected in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) (Ratha, 2014). It is difficult to use remittances as an indicator for labour migration in countries that have a large UN and/or embassy presence or large transnational corporations because their employees’ incomes are recorded as remittances, causing a significant increase in remittance figures.
Data collection at the global level
The ILO maintains an online database of labour statistics (ILOSTAT) as well as a collection of labour force surveys. The labour force surveys are standard household-based surveys of work-related statistics.
ILOSTAT covers various subjects relating to labour, including labour migration. Indicators on labour migration are split into three subtopics: International migrant stock, nationals abroad, and international migrant flow.
In addition, the ILO has produced the ILO global estimates on migrant workers for 2015, which provides global estimates, estimates by country income group, and regional estimates of migrant workers.
The UN Statistics Division collects, compiles and disseminates official demographic and social statistics on a number of topics, including employment.
The Database on Immigrants in OECD and non-OECD Countries (DIOC) compiles data based on population censuses of OECD countries, and in collaboration with the World Bank has extended coverage to non-OECD countries. The database includes information on labour market outcomes, such as labour market status, occupations and sectors of activity. The datasets cover the years 2000-2001, 2005-2006 and 2010-2011.
The Integrated Public Use Microdata Series - International (IPUMS-I) - collects and distributes census data from 85 countries. The database includes population questions that address the labour force as well as labour force Surveys.
Data collection at the regional level
The Eurostat database provides comprehensive, harmonized labour forced data from 28 EU member states and five other countries. Also contains data on residence permits by reason, length of validity and citizenship, including remunerated activities reasons (occupation). One dataset (migr_resocc) disaggregates this by highly skilled workers, researchers, seasonal workers and others.
In collaboration with the ILO, the African Union released the first edition of the Labour Migration Statistics in Africa study in 2017. The study covers labour migration within Africa in 2015, using mainly population and housing censuses, as well as demographic projections and labour force surveys.
The International Labour Migration Statistics Database (ILMS) in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) region brings together official government data on international migrant workers’ stocks and flows within the region, as well as information on nationals living or working abroad. Data available vary, but range from 1990 to 2015.
International Labour Migration Statistics: A Guide for Policymakers and Statistics Organizations in the Pacific, produced by ILO, the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UN ESCAP) and the UN Development Programme (UNDP), provides some data on labour migration in the region. It also provides recommendations on improving international labour migration statistics and how to collect data through census, survey and administrative data sources.
OECD’s International Migration database provides annual series on migration flows and stocks in OECD countries. It also provides labour market outcomes of immigrants from 2012 to 2016.Back to top
Data strengths & limitations
Data on labour migration are scattered mainly because it is difficult to collect reliable data on migrant workers. According to the Global Migration Group’s Handbook for Improving the Production and Use of Migration Data for Development (2017), data collection faces the following gaps and challenges:
- Lack of good quality data, including missing populations of interest, inconsistent periods of data collection, or key characteristics not being collected
- Limited data comparability due to different concepts, definitions and measurement methods
- Lack of infrastructure to process data in national institutions or at border crossing points
- Insufficient expertise among staff collecting or analyzing data
- Lack of infrastructure to publish key characteristics, populations or places of interest
- Insufficient priority given to labour migration in national policy agendas and related budget allocation.
There is an ongoing effort to streamline international standards and common methodologies within the field of labour migration data collection. Currently, such standards and methodologies vary across countries, making data not comparable or combinable.
ILO’s Labour Migration Module provides a useful tool for gathering reliable data on different aspects of labour migration, including a series of migration-related questions that can be added to existing household and labour force surveys.
|ILO, OECD, World Bank|
|2015||The Contribution of Labour Mobility to Economic Growth. September. Joint paper prepared for the G20 Labour and Employment Ministers’ Meeting.|
|2018||ILO global estimates on migrant workers: Results and methodology. International Labour Office, Geneva: ILO.|
|Kagan, S. and J. Campbell|
|2015||International Labour Migration Statistics: A Guide for Policymakers and Statistics, Organizations in the Pacific. EU/ESCAP/ILO/UNDP Project on Strengthening Capacity of Pacific Island Countries to Manage the Impact of Climate Change on Migration; ILO Office for Pacific Island Countries, Suva: ILO 2015.|
|Ozel, M. H., et al.|
|2017||Work. In: Handbook for Improving the Production and Use of Migration Data for Development (Global Migration Group (GMG)). Global Knowledge Partnership for Migration and Development (KNOMAD), World Bank, Washington, DC, p. 33-44.|
|Ozel, M. H., et al.|
|2017||Labour Markets. In: Handbook for Improving the Production and Use of Migration Data for Development (Global Migration Group (GMG)). Global Knowledge Partnership for Migration and Development (KNOMAD), World Bank, Washington, DC, p. 79-90.|