THE UNITED STATES government is aiding and abetting slavery in America. It is shoring up a system of involuntary servitude and peonage. In one case, through the brokerage service it runs, it has found work for a farm labor contractor who had been convicted of violations of the involuntary servitude statutes.

Slavery or involuntary servitude -- which is the condition of enforced, compulsory servitude of one to another -- "occurs nationwide" among the nation's 1.5 million migrant farm workers, according to Bobby Doctor, the regional director of the Southern regional office of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. In the Atlantic Seaboard states from Florida to New York, an estimated 10,000 of the 200,000 migrant farm workers in the area are working under conditions of debt bondage or coerced labor, according to an August 1982 report to the U.N.'s Working Group on Slavery.

Of course, the 13th Amendment outlawed one human being owning another. But this slavery is in some ways more insidious, since it involves, in effect, growers renting people from labor contractors. These workers are then prevented from leaving the camp by the labor contractors who control their lives through intimidation and violence. In peonage cases, the workers are forced to work in order to pay off debts that the labor contractors says they owe him for everything from the use of the mattresses they sleep on to their daily meals.

Slavery flourishes, I believe, because federal authorities do not focus on what role the growers have in the bondage of migrant laborers in their fields. This is true today, despite a reform law enacted last year. Federal enforcement, such as it is, is on the 11,241 crew leaders or farm labor contractors registered with the U.S. Department of Labor. They are the growers' middlemen and, I would say, sometimes their scapegoats.

Officials of the Labor Department say that they are doing the best they can to enforce the law, but that the abuses of farm laborers nevertheless continue. However, other government officials say Labor's interpretation of the law is too narrow.

Although the abuse of migrant farm workers, according to Bobby Doctor, is "endemic," prosecutions are low. According to the Department of Justice, in the last three years it has achieved convictions of 15 crew leaders or their employes in five complaints of violations of involuntary-servitude statutes. One complaint involving the involuntary servitude of migrants is pending. The criminal section of the civil rights division of Justice says it has 28 complaints currently under investigation. The FBI reports that this year it has 33 cases of involuntary servitude pendi g.

The agency most directly involved with migrant farm laborers is the U. S. Department of Labor and its agents -- the state employment security commissions. Crew leaders cannot recruit migrant laborers legally without a license from the Labor Department. This license may be denied if the prospective crew leader has been convicted within five years of felonies including murder, rape, or peonage; or if the individual has failed to comply with the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act and its regulations. The Labor Department, to this extent, puts its stamp of approval on crew leaders by issuing them certificates of registration.

In addition, the employment security commissions, public employment services set up during the Depression to help the unemployed find work, act as go-betweens to provide a link-up for growers and crew leaders. The crew leaders hire and transport the laborers.

Often, a grower requests a "preferred crew leader" by name. That is what happened in the case of Willie Warren Sr., who was convicted of conspiracy to enslave migrant farm workers in federal court in Tampa last month. The incidents for which Warren was convicted of conspiraou cy to enslave happened in North Carolina and Florida. The U.S. Department of Labor brokered the jobs for Warren in which he conspired to enslave laborers.

At the time it allowed Warren to take a job in North Carolina as a grower's "preferred crew leader," the Department of Labor had received numerous formal complaints of violence and peonage lodged against him by farm workers, as well as a record of suspected violations of federal agricultural labor law, according to a Department of Labor investigator and documents received under the Freedom of Information Act by Florida Rural Legal Services, Inc. Although civil fines had been levied against him for labor violations, he had not been convicted of crimes that could cause his license to be denied.

Warren, 49, is hard to miss. He hauled his crews around in a black school bus marked "Black Beauty." When I saw him last summer, "The Black Knight," as he is known in both North Carolina and Florida, was wearing a black bowler and giving orders along with his son, Willie Jr., 26, known as "Coke."

It was night, and Warren Sr. was moving his crew from the foul stable alongside the roadside where he housed them, to another farmer's camp nearby. This was not far from Rainbow Farm, where Warren's third son, Dennis, the year before, had his first crew- leading job while then a teen-ager. As a result of that job, Dennis, who is now 21, was convicted in 1982 of conspiracy to violate the civil rights of migrant workers with death resulting to one of the workers. The conviction has been upheld on appeal.

In the case in which Willie Warren Sr. was convicted last month, the Tampa federal jury also convicted his sons, Willie Jr., and Richard, 24, of conspiracy to enslave. Warren Sr. was sentenced to 10 years in prison, Willie Jr. to 15 years, and Richard to five years. They have all appealed.

On April 6, 1981, two years after the incidents which ultimately led to Willie Warren Sr.'s conviction, an official in the Florida Department of Labor and Employment Security questioned whether Willie Warren Sr. should be certified by the state to work in Florida, according to public records obtained by Florida Rural Legal Services. The official's comment followed migrants' complaints against Warren, including allegations of peonage and kidnaping. Under the law, copies of such complaints to the employment service had to be forwarded to the U.S. Department of Labor.

The Atlanta office, meanwhile -- proceeding on its belief that if Warren had a federal license, he was entitled to move a crew between two states -- issued an "interstate clearance order." This authorized Willie Warren Sr. to bring a crew from Florida to North Carolina. He did so at the request of a grower named Clay Strickand.

It had been on Strickland's farm in 1979 that Warren had committed the acts which led to his conviction last month on charges of conspiracy to enslave the workers. Strickland testified at Warren's trial that he had obtained Warren's services by advertising with the Department of Labor.

In October 1981, the Florida Department of Labor and Employment Security refused to renew Warren's state crew-leader license because he had not paid $1,386.42 in Florida unemployment compensation taxes. On May 7, 1982, His federal license was renewed -- thereby letting him work in North Carolina. Meanwhile, Warren was once again on Labor's annual private watch list of those suspected of being the "worst violators" of agricultural labor laws.

On January 12, 1982, the Atlanta regional Department of Labor office listed 14 crew leaders as supected of being "worst violators" of the labor laws. Warren was among them. The Atlanta office also listed Warren among those crew leaders with "a reputation for violence." In July 1982, a Florida Department of Labor and Employment Security official concluded that: "Since federal law takes procedures (sic) over state law, we must continue to refer his crew under the Interstate Clearance System." And so, with the appro conspiraou val of the U.S. government, Warren was off to set up his crew in North Carolina.

Jack Simmons is another longtime crew leader who received work overseeing migrant farm workers through the Employment Security Commission.

Simmons pleaded guilty in 1972 to charges of peonage and involuntary servitude, according to the Justice Department. He got out of the federal prison at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida in 1978. His parole expired in 1981. Nonetheless, he was registered by the Department of Labor as a crew leader in 1980, and continues to be registered, according to the Department of Labor, because the law is interpreted to mean that such a license can not be denied if the conviction is more than five years old.

In 1978, Simmons' wife, Lottie Mae, was licensed by the Department of Labor to be a crew leader. In 1981, she was fined by Labor for using an unlicensed crew-leader employe -- her husband -- to operate the camp.

Five affidavits from farm workers were filed in a 1980 administrative complaint against the Florida Department of Labor and Employment Security. In them, charges were leveled against the way Jack Simmons operated the camp in 1978. The charges included his housing 48 people in a tobacco barn, beating a worker, working laborers from dawn until dark, and using and threatening physical coercion. The Florida Department settled the complaint by agreeing to improve enforcement of the Florida farm registration law. Simmons was not involved in the litigation and did not testify.

Simmons joined Willie Warren Sr. in making the Atlanta regional office's 1982 suspected "worst violators" list. But Simmons, who has not been convicted of criminal action since 1972, was not put out of business. In the descriptions of the "worst violators" in that list, a U.S. Department of Labor investigator in North Carolina wrote about Simmons:

"Simmons, his wife Lottie Mae, and his son Terry have been investigated several times in the past. . . . There were . . . allegations of persons being held against their will. . . ."

An investigation followed, and no charges were brought against Simmons.

What is remarkable is the Department of Labor's brokering of jobs for crew leaders on its "worst violators" lists. In 1980, according to the administrative complaint before the Florida secretary of labor, all 27 crew leaders on the Feb, 1, 1980 list at the Atlanta regional office -- or their fronts -- were selected by growers as "preferred crew leaders" and the Labor Department gave them permission to transport laborers interstate. The Labor Department says that it has no choice in this matter. Its position is that if a crew leader is in technical compliance with the narrow confines of the law, Labor must register him.

What is extraordinary, too, is the flagrancy in thumbing their noses at the government of the men who have been convicted of peonage and conspiring to enslave. The Florida Department of Labor described one licensed crew chief as a man who "apparently has no respect for, or fear of, the laws."

I asked Solomon Sugarman, the chief of the branch of farm labor at the U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division, why the department continues to license the worst offenders and violent ones at that.

"Unless an applicant has committed a crime named in the (farmworkers' protection) act -- and the list is not that long -- we issue a certificate of registration," he said. A manslaughter conviction, for example, according to Sugarman, is not a designated crime and would not prohibit a crew leader from being licensed by the Labor Department.

Does the law need to be expanded then? Is it a problem of legal restrictions rather than enforcement? Says Sugarman, "We try to enforce what we've got. If Congress wants to give us more to work with, that's up to them."

Rep. George Miller (D-Cal.), chairman of the subcommittee on labor standards, is looking into the mechanics of how federal agencies, particularly the Labor and Justice Departments, enforce the laws protecting migrou ant farm workers. A hearing is scheduled for Thursday.

What needs to be done?

I think agriculture labor law is broad enough to shut down rogue crew leaders and growers, and some government officials familiar with the law agree. What is needed is an end to Department of Labor officials' narrow attitude that their hands are tied. What is needed is an attitude fostered at the highest level as aggressive as that with which federal prosecutors have used the income tax laws and other indirect tools to pursue members of organized crime.

The secretary of labor and the attorney general must vigorously investigate and prosecute all illegal acts against farm workers -- not just slavery -- under the existing law. The Department of Labor must stop licensing crew leaders who have violated the farm labor protection act and its regulations -- as it has the right to do -- rather than focusing only on the specified felonies which also allow it to deny licensing. And the growers must be made responsible for acts of slavery and violence committed in their fields.

The federal government's message needs to be: the era of renting slaves is over.