Why measuring women’s informal employment is both feasible and desirable

A market vendor sells produce at Victoria Market in Port Victoria, Seychelles.
From street vendors and domestic workers to subsistence farmers and seasonal agriculture workers, women make up a disproportionate percentage of workers in the informal sector.
Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown

This blog is written by Marty Chen and Joann Vanek, WIEGO Network. It is the third in a new blog series on women, work and economic empowerment

The majority of women workers in developing countries – and a significant share in developed countries – are informally employed. Yet it is hard to give a global estimate of women’s informal employment because countries in the Global North do not capture this data. At the global network WIEGO, we believe that measuring women’s informal employment is desirable and feasible in both the Global North and the Global South.

Why is it desirable?

Employment is key to redistributing the benefits of economic growth, and to reducing poverty and inequality. But informal workers are more likely than formal workers to suffer deficits in all four dimensions of ‘decent work’: opportunities, rights, protection and voice. Women are more likely than men to be engaged in the informal economy, especially in the most populous regions of South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. By tackling these ‘decent work’ deficits, policies and programmes can help reduce poverty and gender inequality, and enhance women’s empowerment through employment. To do this, they must improve economic opportunities, rights, social and legal protections, and support representative voices for informal female workers. But this requires more – and better – data.

Why is it feasible?

The International Conference of Labour Statisticians (ICLS) recommended a statistical definition of the ‘informal sector’ (in 1993) and of ‘informal employment’ (2003) – covering employment both inside and outside the informal sector. Under these definitions, national statistical offices are increasingly collecting informal employment data in labour force surveys. The WIEGO network has worked closely with the International Labour Office (ILO) to encourage the collection of data on informal employment by promoting these definitions and producing various resources, as listed below (2002; 2011; 2013; 2014).

Though initially the ICLS’s definition was only applied to developing countries, there is increasing recognition that some employment arrangements in developed countries also qualify as ‘informal’. A substantial share of the labour force in developed countries works under arrangements that provide limited access to social protection and reduced benefits for workers: for example, own-account self-employment; temporary or fixed-term employment including temporary agency work, on-call or contract company work; and some forms of part-time work.

Many developed countries are collecting data to understand better these employment arrangements and their impact on workers. But the types of employment arrangements covered in national surveys differ significantly across countries, and few nations are collecting data on the full set. To advance informal employment statistics and to understand ongoing changes in employment globally, it is important to have a comprehensive picture of work arrangements across both developed and developing countries.

What data are available?

Outside of agriculture, most male and female workers are informally employed. A recent study shows that in three out of the four regions for which data is available (South Asia; sub-Saharan Africa; Latin America and the Caribbean), a higher share of women than men are in informal employment whereas in East and Southeast Asia, the percentage of informal workers is around 65% for both men and women. It should be noted, however, that low female labour force participation in general means that men comprise the majority of informal workers in most countries.

Data is also available on the differences between men and women’s employment within the informal workforce, according to four key statistical and policy variables: status in employment, place of work, branch of economic activity, and occupation.

  1. Status in employment. Large shares of both male and female informal workers are self-employed, the majority of whom are own-account workers – that is, they do not hire other workers. Contributing family workers are the second largest category of self-employed workers and, in most regions, the percentage of women in this category is at least twice that of men (in Asia, this jumps to three times as many). Employers only comprise between 2% and 9% of informal employment outside agriculture, with the proportion far higher for men than women.
  2. Place of work. Outside the home, female informal workers are engaged alongside males in public spaces, but are less likely to be engaged in workshops or factories. But in work that takes place in private homes – both home-based work (in the home of the worker) and domestic work (in the home of the employer) – women are over-represented.
  3. Branch of economic activity. Very few women work in informal construction and transportation activities, the one exception being female construction workers in South Asia. In all regions other than sub-Saharan Africa, the proportion of informally employed women working in manufacturing is equal to or greater than the proportion of informally employed men in the same sector. The same is true of trade, with the only exceptions being the Middle East and North Africa, and South Asia. Services other than trade and transportation – notably, domestic work – account for a larger share of women’s employment than that of men across all regions.
  4. Occupational group. Home-based production and street vending represent a significant share of the workforce across cities in South and Southeast Asia and in sub-Saharan Africa. In South and Southeast Asia, home-based work represents between 8% and 56% of women’s employment in cities where data is available, while street vending or market trading represents between 1% and 10% of women’s employment in these same cities. In sub-Saharan Africa, home-based work represents between 13% and 33% of women’s employment in cities where data is available (mainly in Francophone West Africa); and street vending or market trading, between 12% and 32% per cent of female employment in those cities. In the two Latin American cities for which data is available – Mexico City and Lima – home-based work represents 4% and 6% of women’s employment, respectively, and street vending or market trading, 5% and 13%.

Home-based producers and street venders, along with the two other occupational groups with which WIEGO works – domestic workers and waste pickers – represent a significant share of women’s total employment in cities and countries across the developing world. In India, almost a quarter of the total female workforce in 2011-2012 was employed in one of four groups, specifically: domestic work (5%), home-based work (14%), street vending (4%) and waste picking (1%). Elsewhere, these four groups represent between 20% and 71% of women’s employment outside of agriculture.

The WIEGO network believes that to reduce poverty and inequality it is both desirable and feasible to capture statistics on women’s informal employment. For two decades, WIEGO has worked closely with the International Labour Organization, the UN Statistical Commission and Statistical Division, regional economic and social commissions and national statistical offices for two decades to improve the measurement of informal employment in general and women’s informal employment in particular.  Currently, the WIEGO network is working with the International Labour Office on proposed revisions to the International Classification of Status in Employment and with the UN Economic Commission of Europe (UNECE), Eurostats and ILO on indicators of informal employment in developed countries.  The end goal is to be able to generate global estimates of women’s informal employment.


In-country survey planning:

ILO/The Delhi Group – the International Expert Group on Informal Statistics/WIEGO (2013) Measuring Informality: a Statistical Manual on the Informal Sector and Informal Employment. This resource was devised to assist countries in planning surveys on informal development, and was accompanied by training to national statistical offices.

Global data on informal employment:

ILO – International Labour Organization/WIEGO (2011) Key Indicators of the Labour Market. This database, which has now been integrated into the official ILO database, ILOSTAT, collates data on informal employment and employment in the informal sector across 46 countries. It includes updated statistics on informal employment from many of these countries and information from an additional six countries.

Statistical reports:

ILO/WIEGO (2002) Women and Men in the Informal Economy: A Statistical Picture. 1st edition.

ILO/WIEGO (2013) of Women and Men in the Informal Economy: A Statistical Picture. 2nd edition.

Regional estimates:

WIEGO (2014) Statistics on the Informal Economy: Definitions, Regional Estimates and Challenges. WIEGO Working Paper (Statistics) No. 2.

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