BACKGROUND: Little is known about international variations in employment rates among people with schizophrenia or about the factors associated with employment in this disorder. AIMS: To describe employment patterns and the variables associated with working in an international sample of people with schizophrenia. METHOD: An analysis was made of baseline data from the European Schizophrenia Cohort study, a 2-year investigation of people with schizophrenia in contact with secondary services and living in France, Germany and the UK (n=1208). RESULTS: Participants were working in all sections of the job market. People who had a degree, were living with their families or had experienced only a single episode of illness were more likely to be working. A continuous illness course, more severe non-psychotic symptoms and drug misuse reduced the odds of employment. There were large variations between centres in employment rates, which were highest in the three German study sites. These differences persisted after adjustment for individual characteristics. CONCLUSIONS: Local social contexts may be as important as individual or illness-related factors in explaining employment status.