The Supreme Court, in a defeat for Virginia apple growers, yesterday ruled 8 to 0 that the government of Puerto Rico can sue the orchard owners for refusing to hire its workers.

Puerto Rico had sued the growers, arguing that they violated federal migrant-worker laws by hiring Jamaicans to pick apples when U.S. citizens--Puerto Rican laborers--were available for the jobs.

The growers said the Puerto Ricans, unlike the Jamaicans, were unsuited for the work, were weak, didn't work hard, and couldn't pick the normal 110 of the 40-pound bushels of apples a day. They also claimed there were so few Puerto Ricans involved in the lawsuit that the island government didn't have the right to sue and that the workers could file lawsuits on their own.

The Puerto Rican government claimed its workers were being discriminated against and that the refusal to hire the apple pickers would taint other Puerto Rican workers who would then have problems gaining employment on the mainland. The government said it had the right to sue as part of its responsibility to its citizens, 30 percent of whom are unemployed.

The decision opens the way for a lower court trial on Puerto Rico's claims.

"Just as we have long recognized that a state's interest in the health and well-being of its residents extends beyond mere physical interests to economic and commercial interests, we recognize a similar state interest in securing residents from the harmful effects of discrimination," the court said in an opinion written by Justice Byron R. White. "This court has had too much experience with the political, social and moral damage of discrimination not to recognize that a state has a substantial interest in assuring its residents that it will act to protect them from these evils."

Justice Lewis F. Powell did not participate in the vote.

The apple growers' contention that only about 787 job opportunities in Virginia were involved, with little effect on the Puerto Rican economy, "is too narrow a view of the interests at stake here," the court said.

Under the Wagner-Peyser Act, growers looking for workers circulate job openings locally and if workers aren't available, a federal network is used to recruit through other agencies on the mainland and in U.S. territories.

The Immigration and Naturalization Act allows the hiring of temporary foreign workers only "if unemployed persons capable of performing such service or labor cannot be found in this country . . ."

Puerto Rico's suit, filed three years ago, was dismissed by the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia, which ruled in favor of the growers. However, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that decision, saying the Puerto Rican government had standing to sue because it is charged with developing the interest and welfare of its workers.

"The number of farm workers temporarily employed annually does not accurately measure the potential effect of the damaged recruitment efforts on all of Puerto Rico's citizens," the appeals court wrote.

The Supreme Court agreed. "Regardless of the possibly limited effect of the alleged financial loss at issue here, we agree with the court of appeals that deliberate efforts to stigmatize the labor force as inferior carry a universal sting," the court said.