The gang system is a reference within slavery to a division of labor established on the plantation. It is the more brutal of two main types of labor systems. The other form, known as the Task System, was less harsh and allowed the slaves more autonomy than did the gang system. In the antebellum Cotton South the slave labor force consisted of a heterogeneous mix of strong and weak workers. The gang system utilized this mix by specializing workers to tasks that suited their physical capability. It was the allocation of slaves to assignments based on their comparative advantage that was the dominant cause of the productivity gain as farms moved from the task to the gang system.
On the Caribbean sugar plantation, the gang system was the preferred form of labor because it was the most productive. It was also, however, extremely brutal. Under the gang system, enslaved people were divided into three subgroups based upon their physical capabilities. These groups labored, often from dawn until dusk, under the supervision of an overseer. They were constantly pushed to yield maximum production. It operated as a virtual assembly line of laborers. The strongest and most capable group would be the ones responsible for planting and harvesting the cane. The next group was often responsible for weeding and hand fertilizing the crops using dung. The last group, often made up of the very old or very young, completed remaining basic tasks, including ridding field of rats and running errands. Because the fields were planted in successive rotation, once the gang had completed their work on one field it was time to move to the next one. This allowed no time for the field gangs to tend to their own needs. This underscored the severity of this system.
Many economists believe that the stagnant economic growth in the South from 1865 to 1900 was due to a reorganization of labor away from large plantations with the gang system of labor to smaller tenant farms. These smaller farms encouraged laborers to work harder and for longer periods. In addition, farmers and land owners bore the risk of bad harvests. Often both parties would cooperate and try new methods to boost crop production.
They argue that gang system of labor was the driving force behind the efficiencies of slavery. In comparison to free farms, small slave farms of 1-15 slaves showed no great difference in productivity. Large slave farms of 16 or more slaves benefited from gang systems of labor as activities were monitored and work was done in rhythm. Data also shows that the shift in southern farms from the gang system of labor to sharecropping resulted in a 50% decline in southern income per capita. The result was not from an increase in the hours of work but from the increase in the intensity of labor per hour. The data shows that the average workweek in the south was 10% shorted than the workweek in northern agriculture.
- Science Direct