The "caddie question"

One of the chapters of the book I’m writing deals with the labor conditions at the golf clubs where I did my research in Bangalore. I’m currently reworking it into an article manuscript, which is giving me a chance to refine the argument. The matter concerns whether or not the caddies should be regularized as employees. The issue was first debated at a meeting held at the Bangalore Golf Club in July of 1896. The obvious solution was to pay them a salary, as one member in the room that day had suggested, as this would have the effect of “compelling them by fines to be present always.” The proposal was shelved, though, on account of limited funds. The club was only recovering 40 rupees a month in member dues at the time, and the burden of paying 20 caddies three rupees a month in salary was too steep, apparently: “The loss thus incurred to the club would not be justified by the advantage gained, even if the plan was a success.”

The question of employment was raised again in the fall of 1908, except this time as the “caddie question,” and yet this time, again, it was voted down: there was no money to pay the caddies on a regular basis. The same question was asked, and answered in the negative, one more time in September of 1946, when it was suggested that member dues increase to “pay caddies a monthly wage and not as casual labour as and when they came.” A month later, in October, it was put to the larger body of the club to decide whether to support a “basic wage” of 15 and 12 rupees as payment to regular and fore caddies, respectively. “It was thought that this would provide sufficient inducement and that players would be assured of caddies when required,” the minutes read. The majority of members thought otherwise, and, as before, voted the amendment down.

At no time in the subsequent 100-plus-year history of the Bangalore Golf Club have the caddies been named employees. The same holds true at the other two golf clubs where I did significant research, the Karnataka Golf Association and the Eagleton Golf Resort. Not that the caddies wouldn’t have a case, mind you. While they are not officially designated employees—club officials prefer to call them “casual” or “contract” laborers; or, as a few put it to me, “you know, like railway porters, free to come and go as they like”—they sure are treated that way. They must hand over personal identification, sign a register, wear uniforms, attend (unpaid) training sessions, and submit to the dictates of caddy masters, or paid managers, who police their behavior. 

Here’s the thing, though. Despite working conditions that mimic full-time employment, the caddies at all three clubs generally avoid talk of organizing in support of that very achievement. While they faced the usual challenges of collectively organizing—diversity of language, religion, caste, and community are certainly obstacles, as is the number of them, 300 or more, at each club—these challenges alone weren’t sufficient to explain their resistance to pursuing a path to employment. They didn’t want employment, it seemed. That’s the way they put it to me, at least. Rather, they preferred to be treated like the contract or casual laborers the clubs said they were. They really did want to come and go as they liked. They didn’t want to be told what to do. That they ended up being treated differently—restricted in their access to the club, demoted or suspended time-to-time, told what to do, where to go, and how much they could charge members for their services—wasn’t enough to change their minds.

As many labor scholars and activists have it, though, the trouble with informal or precarious workers is, well, the informality, the precarity of what they do. The point is to move these workers into deeper, more formal ties with prospective employers, whether public or private. So, how do the caddies end up not wanting this kind of formalization? That’s the puzzle I’m working through.

It comes down to two things, in my assessment. First, the clubs, as mentioned, refuse to call the caddies employees. That’s a convenience, for sure, but it’s also a useful rhetorical trick. Calling the caddies contract or casual laborers immediately neutralizes the claim to be treated this way. Second, is the arbitrary and indiscriminate way that the clubs go about exacting discipline and control over the caddies. It’s not all the time that the caddies face punishment or suspension for things they do or don’t do on the golf courses. And not all the time that they are told to go with one member or another, even if they have a round already set up with someone else who they know will pay them more. There’s enough autonomy, in other words, to give the appearance of full autonomy—indeed, if the clubs got to have things precisely their way, all the time, while never giving the caddies guaranteed wages, benefits, and other protections owed full-time employees, I think they would have some significant resistance to deal with. But they don’t, and that works in their favor. What limited freedoms and choices the caddies already have, they want more of the same. 

The last thing, of course, which is more an outcome of the previously discussed conditions, is the relationship caddies develop with individual members who they depend upon to provide them with social and economic security. And the more the caddies come to depend on any one member, or group of members, the less likely they are to rise up against them. 

So, in the end, the status quo prevails. The caddies do okay, but never well enough, and never with the full autonomy they desire, and rightly deserve. And the clubs go on treating the caddies as if they are employees, while refusing them that title.