Learning: The Spectrum of Agency

At the NSN, we recognize the spectrum of agency as an essential part of our anti-trafficking framework.
The spectrum of agency acknowledges that peoples’ options and choices about what kinds of work they do are largely influenced by circumstances, and agency is not always straightforward.

Work by force, fraud, or coercion is human trafficking.

Work by enthusiastic choice is a privilege.

Work by circumstance is when someone does work they do not want to be doing because they do not have better options. This is reflected by the sentiment, “I would leave this work if I had better options,” and this is the situation in which many people in the United States find themselves.

  • “I do this work which I don’t enjoy because I have to pay my bills or feed my family.”
  • “I do this work which I don’t want to do because it pays well and I couldn’t make this much in a different field.”
  • “I do this work which pays horribly because of disability and other work options available to me don’t accommodate my needs or limitations.”
  • “I do this work that brings significant risks of devastating health impacts because that is the only industry that pays well in my region.”
  • “I do this work that contradicts my values because I can’t get hired in a job that aligns with my values.”
  • “I do this work I hate because my criminal record prevents the kinds of employment I would like to do.”
  • “I do this work that is scary because I lost my stable housing and can’t find work in many other fields because they require a permanent address.”

These are just a few of the emotionally-challenging and often physically impactful realities people face, and digging deeper into how these kinds of situations happen in so many forms of labor helps recognize the intersectionality of all our struggles. Racism, xenophobia, poverty, ableism, and other factors all contribute to these dynamics.

We reduce the number of people trapped in these situations when we increase options through systemic change, anti-oppression work, stronger safety nets, and more equitable compensation for workers.

As part of our emphasis on bodily autonomy and self-determination, we acknowledge every person’s right to make the best choices for themselves out of the options that are available to them. Honoring the choices people make to take care of themselves while continuing to advocate for better, meaningful, and relevant options honors their safety and self-determination.