On Defining and Measuring the Informal Sector

50 Pages Posted: 5 Apr 2006

See all articles by Andrew Henley

Andrew Henley

Cardiff Business School, Cardiff University; IZA Institute of Labor Economics

G. Reza Arabsheibani

Swansea University - School of Business and Economics; IZA Institute of Labor Economics

Francisco Carneiro

The World Bank


A range of alternative empirical definitions of informal activity have been employed in the literature. Choice of definition is often dictated by data availability. Different definitions may imply very different conceptual understandings of informality. In this paper, Henley, Arabsheibani, and Carneiro investigate the degree of congruence between three definitions of informality based on employment contract registration, social security protection and the characteristics of the employer and employment using Brazilian household survey data for the period 1992 to 2001. 64% of the economically active are informal according to at least one definition, but only 40% are informal according to all three. Steady compositional changes have been taking place among informal workers, conditional on definition. The econometric analysis undertaken by the authors reveals that the conditional impact of particular factors (demographic, educational attainment, family circumstances) on the likelihood of informality varies considerably from one definition to another. Their results suggest growing heterogeneity within the informal sector. Therefore, the authors argue that informal activity may be as much associated with entrepreneurial dynamism as with any desire to avoid costly contract registration and social protection. However, this paper confirms that there is no a priori reason for entrepreneurial activity to be unprotected. Consequently definitions of informality based on occupation and employer size seem the most arbitrary in practice even if conceptually well-founded.

Keywords: Employment, Social Protection, Self-Employment, Entrepreneurship

JEL Classification: J21, J42

Suggested Citation

Henley, Andrew and Arabsheibani, G. Reza and Carneiro, Francisco Galrao, On Defining and Measuring the Informal Sector. World Bank Policy Research Working Paper No. 3866, IZA Discussion Paper No. 2473, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=894956

Andrew Henley (Contact Author)

Cardiff Business School, Cardiff University ( email )

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IZA Institute of Labor Economics

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G. Reza Arabsheibani

Swansea University - School of Business and Economics ( email )

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Francisco Galrao Carneiro

The World Bank ( email )

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United States

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