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New ways of working call for new ways to measure work: UNECE-led statisticians investigate

New ways of working call for new ways to measure work: UNECE-led statisticians investigate

A man on bicycle delivering food

A team of expert labour statisticians is to be convened by UNECE for the Conference of European Statisticians, to investigate how to reflect new ways of working in the employment figures we use every day.

Over the past year the work-from-home orders and business closure rules issued by many countries to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic have brought about massive changes in where, when and how we work. But well before the pandemic, a longer-term trend had already taken hold, with major shifts and diversification in how people work, where and when they do it, and in the relationships between employees and their employers. Driven by digitalization and globalization of value chains, work is increasingly done remotely, sometimes across borders. Businesses now often spread out their operations to access pools of workers with specialized skills, or to match workers with specific tasks.

Sometimes it’s hard to even determine what constitutes employment—is a social media influencer who makes money in connection with their posts employed? And if so, are they self-employed or working for the company whose products they promote? Does the time they spend recording videos, trialling the products they promote or even travelling in desirable destinations count as working time? Similar questions apply to people who earn an income from digitally-managed platform work or the so-called ‘gig economy’, such as providing private taxi rides, delivering food or renting out private accommodation.

As well as issues of definition, there are questions about socio-economic implications. Does the proliferation of very-short-term contracts exacerbate inequalities? How does increased flexibility in working time and location affect social protection and well-being? Work-family balance might be better supported by remote working, but on-demand contracts could lead to people working unsocial hours and to increased financial uncertainty.

As policymakers tackle these and many other questions arising from the growth and diversity of new forms of employment, they need to be informed by numbers. They need data to tell them how many people are impacted by new forms of employment and to quantify its impact. For official statistics it is not a matter of defining employment for legal purposes, such as determining contractual relationships and tax obligations. Rather, statistics are needed for counting up the number of workers and the amount of work done in a country, to give us basic figures on employment rates, incomes and the size of the economy. Standardized, internationally-agreed methods are needed to ensure countries are all counting the same thing when we talk about economic growth, unemployment or average working hours. When we talk about well-being and quality of life, factors such as the average length of people’s commute to work will be heavily influenced by including or excluding home-based self-employed workers. But there are many challenges to producing the necessary statistics, going well beyond the difficulties of definitions. For instance, gathering reliable information via surveys is hard to do and increasingly unpopular among respondents.

A UNECE working paper released today, New forms of employment and quality of employment: implications for official statistics, analyses these challenges and examines the state of the art in national statistical offices and international organizations as they try to develop answers.

The analysis results from an in-depth review of the topic led by Statistics Canada, which explored the kinds of questions policymakers are asking about new forms of employment for which statistics are needed, and where there are gaps in the availability of such statistics. The review looked at the extent to which countries currently gather information on non-standard types of work, and whether they plan to do so in the future. The demand for information on the prevalence of telework, for example, has increased over the past year as countries try to track the impacts of Covid-19 restrictions and the long-term effects on people’s places of work.

One of the key recommendations of the review was that a multi-country, multi-agency group should be established to develop a conceptual framework that can keep pace with the rapid changes we are seeing in the world of work. Acting on this recommendation, the Conference of European Statisticians will establish a Task Force during its plenary session later this month. At least 14 countries and 5 organizations will participate: Australia, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Mexico, Norway, Poland, Singapore, Switzerland, United Kingdom, Eurofound, OECD, Eurostat, ILO and Women in Informal Employment: Globalization and Organizing (WIEGO). The Task Force will work towards a forward-looking framework with recommendations on statistical indicators and how to produce them, to be completed in 2022.