, VI Conference of BRICS Initiative of Critical Agrarian Studies

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Labour governance in the Brazilian soy sector: new state-market relations
Petras Shelton-Zumpano

Last modified: 2018-12-14


This paper examines the role of epistemic communities and advocacy networks in Brazilian rural labour governance and soy supply chain politics. Epistemic communities (Haas, 2015) and advocacy networks (Keck & Sikkink, 1998) are important concepts in constructivist international relations scholarship. Their influence over risk perceptions and trust in soy stakeholder relations is evaluated by focusing on four labour governance initiatives that affect the soy sector: 1) the Round Table on Responsible Soy (RTRS), a private governance initiative; and three state labour governance initiatives, 2) the 2017 Brazilian labour reforms; 3) modern slavery regulations; and 4) the rural health and safety regulations (NR 31). These four initiatives are also regulatory processes that have been shaped by the particular interpretations of risk and trust disseminated by epistemic and advocacy networks. The transnational liberal epistemic community has been able to influence the four initiatives, conditioning the interactions between state and non-state labour governance mechanisms in the soy sector.

Many soy sector stakeholders reproduce liberal beliefs in discourse about trust and risks but unions, advocacy networks and career civil servants who loosely identify themselves as members or allies of the transnational socialist movement provided rival formulations of trust and risk. The increasing presence of Chinese executives and traders in the Brazilian soy sector and in transnational private governance mechanisms like the RTRS could have a profound impact on the distribution of risks in Brazilian agriculture. Their arrival in Brazil could also alter the epistemic distribution of beliefs about trust and risks in state-market relations. Hearn (2015) argued that differences in cultural dispositions towards trust in state-market relations affected Sino-Brazilian agriculture. I argue that European and Brazilian soy sector stakeholders with liberal beliefs remain more powerful than their socialist rivals in the four examined cases of rural labour governance.

This paper also seeks to clarify an important research puzzle regarding the interactions between state and non-state governance in supply chain politics (Macdonald, 2014). The analysis of labour standards required for certification by the RTRS reveals key differences between traditional state governance and non-state governance in the Brazilian soy sector. It also indicates the widespread influence of liberal thinking, which has grown in Brazil since the impeachment of President Rousseff in 2016. However, the political and epistemic resistance led by unions, civil society and public sector officials is also growing.

The four labour governance initiatives suggest that the final outcome of labour governance processes is influenced not only by the distribution of power but also by the variation of risk cultures across sectors and epistemic communities. The labour reforms and governance initiatives have generated new dynamics of risk and trust. A deeper understanding of these dynamics can be achieved by examining the role of epistemic and advocacy networks in soy supply chain politics. The analysis of four specific labour governance processes, relevant to the soy sector, is preceded by a brief description of the main institutions involved in the governance of Brazilian agricultural labour.


Soy; Labour; Governance; Epistemic Communities; Advocacy Networks; Brazilian Political Parties; Trust; Risk

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