Providing Comparable International Labor Statistics; BLS Adjusts Foreign Data to a Common Conceptual Framework, Thereby Aiding Users in Making Meaningful International Comparisons. (International comparisons).(Bureau of Labor Statistics)(Statistical Data Included)

Article excerpt

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) produces many statistical series for the United States which describe important aspects of U.S. economic performance. For example, data show that over the last 40 years the number of employed persons has doubled, Hourly compensation costs for production workers in the manufacturing sector have grown from a little more than $6 per hour in 1975 to almost $20 per hour in 2000. Over the last 50 years, labor productivity in the manufacturing sector has increased about 3 percent per year, resulting in more than a quadrupling of the output produced per hour of labor input. (1)

But, how does this compare with the rest of the world? A comparison of U.S. performance with that of other countries is of interest to many data users from the academic, government, business, and labor sectors.

Several difficulties arise in making these comparisons, however. Foreign labor statistics are not always easily accessible, and publications containing the data may not be in English. The foreign statistics may not be comparable to U.S. data because of differences in concepts and definitions, classification systems, and survey methodology, and may be of uneven quality among countries.

The BLS Division of Foreign Labor Statistics provides a set of easily accessible labor statistics adjusted for comparability to aid users in making meaningful international comparisons. BLS selects a conceptual framework for comparative purposes; obtains foreign data and documentation from many sources and translates the material into English when necessary; analyzes sources and methods to assess quality and comparability; and adjusts statistical series where necessary and feasible for greater comparability.

BLS publishes statistics adjusted for comparability on labor force, employment and unemployment; productivity and unit labor cost trends in the manufacturing sector; and hourly compensation costs for production workers in all manufacturing and in component manufacturing industries. In addition, statistics are published on gross domestic product (GDP) per capita and per employed person and on consumer price indexes (CPIs), although these latter two series are not adjusted for comparability. The measures produced relate primarily, but not entirely, to the major developed countries which are the most similar to the United States.

The BLS program of international comparisons is unique. Other national statistical agencies publish some international comparisons, and international statistical agencies publish statistics collected within a common set of guidelines from a large number of countries. With few exceptions, however, data are not adjusted for comparability by these other agencies.

A summary listing of the major international statistical agencies and their work is contained in an appendix to this article. The BLS Web site provides links to these agencies to enable users to find data that are complementary to the BLS series. Links are also provided to sources of international data for topics not covered by BLS. (2)

This article presents a historical perspective on BLS international comparisons and provides a brief overview of the current program. It also examines the the reasons why foreign data must be adjusted for comparability and the procedures used by BLS to adjust the data. Some examples of differences between adjusted and unadjusted data series are presented.

Background and current measures

As early as the turn of the last century, Carroll Wright, the first Commissioner of what would become the Bureau of Labor Statistics, sent staff to Europe and obtained the services of experts to collect information for studies of labor developments abroad. (3)

Two reports, Sixth Annual Report of the Commissioner of Labor, 1890, Cost of Production: Iron, Steel, Coal, etc. and Seventh Annual Report, 1891, Cost of Production: The Textiles and Glass [sic] were concerned chiefly with aggregate and unit costs of production, employee earnings, "efficiency" of labor, and cost of living in the United States. …