THERE WAS nothing startlingly new in those grimly graphic accounts last week by staff writer Ward Sinclair of life in the rural sweat shops of the East--where ad hoc armies of stoop laborers bend, crawl and pick their wretched way through the crops and countrysides from south to north and back. This story has been told before, and certainly will be told again--which is what makes it all the more frustrating. As any reader might note, this is how it's always been down on the farms, where the cold economic facts of agriculture have necessarily included backbreaking seasonal work at piece rates. But must it always be the same story of squalid little camps, disease, sickness, all-powerful crew chiefs and human degradation?

The work may never be that attractive, but there is no valid excuse for the working and living conditions foisted on those who perform such tasks. The trouble has been, and still is, that migrant workers have no patrons in government to care for them. Local and state officials tend to regard them as "federal people" because they move around--while the federal government's fix on them is fuzzy for the same reason. What benefits and guarantees they have been accorded by Washington tend to be more on paper than in the fields.

Dedicated social workers, lawyers and organizers still try to keep the faith of genuine reform while crew chiefs, growers and politicians with agricultural ties still try to shut off access and resist any changes that might upset their fragile finances. True, Congress--if pressed--might add a few more requirements to the books, and the administration --if suddenly free with its spending--might pour money into a vast enforcement organization to police every migrant campsite in America.

But civil rights depend on civil decency from Washington right on down through the state and local ranks, where the regular policing, exposure and pressures must be generated if anything is to improve. In Maryland, for example, reporter Sinclair notes that Gov. Harry Hughes has been moving to crack down on conditions on the Eastern Shore. The full weight of his authority could improve things in the state. But the workers move on --and their fortunes are as fleeting as their assignments. At what point will enough people give a damn?