In 2019, there were 169 million international migrant workers in the world and they constituted 4.9 per cent of the global labour force in the destination countries (ILO, 2021). These international migrant workers made up approximately 69 per cent of the world’s international migrant population of working age (aged 15 and over) in 2019 (ILO, 2021).
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 169 million migrant workers globally in 2019 (ILO, 2021). Over two-thirds of all migrant workers were concentrated in high-income countries and approximately 60.6 per cent were located in three subregions: 24.2 per cent in Northern, Southern and Western Europe; 22.1 per cent in Northern America; and 14.3 per cent in the Arab States (ibid.). The importance of these top three subregions in terms of the number of international migrant workers they host has not diminished over time. According to previous estimates, the same three subregions hosted the biggest shares of all migrant workers: 60.2 per cent in 2013 and 60.8 per cent in 2017 (ibid.)
Among all migrant workers worldwide in 2019, 70 million or approximately 41.5 per cent were female (ibid.). Male migrant workers made up 99 million or 58.5 per cent of the total (ibid.). Women represent a smaller share of the total of international migrant workers because they also represent a lower share of the total international migrants (47.9%) and they have a relatively lower labour market participation rate compared to men (59.8% vs. 77.5%) (ibid.). However, some significant regional variations existed in the share of women among total migrant workers. In Northern, Southern and Western Europe, women represented more than 50.0 per cent of all migrant workers; in the Arab States, the share was below 20.0 per cent (ibid.).
Prime-age adults (aged 25–64) constituted 86.5 per cent of all migrant workers (ibid.). Approximately 10 per cent of all migrant workers in 2019 were between 15 and 24 years old (ibid.). The share of older workers (aged 65 and over) among migrant workers constituted 3.6 per cent (ibid.).
The services sector was the main employer of migrant workers, employing 66.2 per cent of all migrant workers and almost 80 per cent of total female migrant workers worldwide (ibid.). A growing demand for labour in the care economy (including in health and domestic work), where the labour force is predominantly female, could partially explain the high share of women migrant workers in the services sector (ibid.). As for the remaining migrant workers, 26.7 per cent were in industry and 7.1 per cent in agriculture (ibid.).
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.|
|2021||ILO global estimates on migrant workers: Results and methodology. International Labour Office, Geneva: ILO.|
|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.|