The ILO Department of Statistics was set up in 1919 as a Statistical Section for “the collection and distribution of information on all subjects relating to the international adjustment of conditions of industrial life and labour” (Article 10.1 of the Constitution of the International Labour Organisation).

Its most important activity at the time was the compilation and dissemination of national labour statistics in order to make available to the widest possible audience the results of national statistical inquiries into the characteristics of their working populations and their conditions of work and life. Price statistics and unemployment began to be published in the International Labour Review in 1921 and in the years which followed statistics on employment, wages and hours of work, and information on industrial disputes and collective agreements were added.

A next step in the ILO’s fulfilment of its mandate to carry out statistical dissemination was the publication of the Yearbook of Labour Statistics starting in 1935. The official statistics presented then covered the “gainfully occupied population”, employment and unemployment, hours of work, wages, cost of living and retail prices, family budgets, international migration, industrial accidents, production and wholesale price indices and exchange rates. This impressive publication of approximately 2000-plus pages became a trilingual (English, French, Spanish) edition and presented the most complete data obtainable “for some 50 countries in all parts of the world”. Today the latest edition includes over 190 countries and territories.

Together with its compilation and dissemination activities, the Department of Statistics also started its statistical standard setting activities in the early 1920s, though albeit limited to industrialised countries and a few topics (employment and unemployment, wages and hours of work, migration, cost of living, occupational diseases and accidents). on labour statistics can take the form of International Labour Conventions and Recommendations, as well as or . The latter are adopted by the . This Conference is the main instrument for formulating policy guidance in labour statistics. The first International Conference of Labour Statisticians was celebrated in 1923 and since then, seventeen Conferences have been carried out which have adopted resolutions and guidelines on a vast range of subjects.

With the rapid growth in the number of member States in the 1950s and 1960s, especially from the developing world, the statistical work of the Office took on the additional task of promoting labour statistics through technical cooperation and training activities, and data compilation and standard setting were extended to also include topics of particular relevance to these countries.