Bimal Ghosh's op-ed article, "Humanitarianism or Protectionism?" {Sept. 14}, expresses some of the understandable misgivings in the Third World and elsewhere. But it badly misconstrues the origins, motivation and goals of the worker-rights provisions in the trade bill, which received overwhelming bipartisan approval in the relevant House and Senate committees and which were not challenged in floor debate.

The provisions are not a neo-protectionist design hatched by the AFL-CIO. Rather, they are broadly supported by activists from human rights, religious, busi-ness, labor, agricultural, government and academic backgrounds who are disturbed by an escalating trend in global production that undercuts the rights of workers everywhere and, in so doing, arouses calls for higher tariffs and quotas.

It is delusory for trading nations to maintain that labor policies are strictly domestic concerns while the global economy is becoming so interdependent. In a world populated by an enormous surplus of hands desperate for any work, the reality is that those trading nations that respect the rights and standards of their workers suffer in competition with those countries in which governments systematically grind their workers. That is why the North-South Commission, chaired by Willy Brandt, in 1980 called for an international agreement on fair labor standards in trade to prevent unfair competition and to facilitate trade liberalization.

The provisions are not part of a sinister plot to provide a moralistic pretext for arbitrarily keeping imports out of the U.S. market; nor are they a means to negate the legitimate comparative advantage of developing countries that offer lower costs in producing labor-intensive products. That is why the legislation focuses upon systematic repression of basic worker rights as a means of getting ahead in trade and why it explicitly allows taking into account a country's level of economic development in evaluating labor standards (wages, hours of work and occupational safety and health).

At present, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and U.S. trade laws spell out rules with regard to capital subsidies and dumping to promote fair competition, but not for labor practices. Anything goes in the treatment of workers.

But trade is not an end in itself. Fair and decent competition in international trade should renounce systematic labor repression, just as it does violation of intellectual property rights. It should be restructured by rule and in practice to improve the living standards of workers as well as consumers and financiers. Surely when U.S. import laws now protect endangered animals and plants, we ought not to remain silent on manufactured imports made by child labor.

Ray Marshall and Don J. Pease Ray Marshall, who was secretary of labor from 1977 to 1981, is president of the International Labor Rights Education and Research Fund. Don J. Pease, a Democratic representative from Ohio, sponsored the worker-rights provisions of the trade bill.