The United States should consider using relative labor standards such as wages and safety rules as a lever in negotiating international trade agreements. Labor Secretary Ray Marshall said yesterday.

He said such an approach would help protect U.S. industry and jobs from unfair foreign competition while underscoring the nation's commitment to human rights by increasing pressure for better working conditions in all countries.

Marshall conceded the idea is not new and may be difficult to implement but said he is "floating" it within administration and international labor circles in hopes it can be used to help the United States out of its present trade bind.

As Marshall outlined it at a press briefing, the idea would be to adjust tariffs, quotas and other negotiated trade mechanisms to account for any competitive advantages that other nations enjoy because of lower labor standards.

For instance, he said, this would make it less worthwhile for a U.S. corporation to escape the expense of meeting American health and safety regulations by relocating a plant in a country with no health and safety rules.

Comparative labor standards could probably be cranked into trade negotiations without a change in trade laws, said Marshall in underscoring the administration's avowed opposition to any new protectionist trade legislation.

The AFL-CIO has announced plans to push for quotas and other protectionist devices in Congress this year, but Marshall said his proposal is not an attempt to head off the union drive. He noted that he's been circulating his ideas for some time.

AFL-CIO officials said they liked the idea so much they've been pursuing it, on and off, for more than 20 years -- without success.

"It would take a great deal of pressure off the American system if it were possible to do," said AFL-CIO spokesman Albert J. Zack, ". . . but there's a serious question whether it's feasible to do."

A joint study by American and Japanese labor economists on how to set up a standards-weighing mechanism foundered because of fundamental differences in the two countries' economies and labor relations systems, said Zack.

Marshall said exploratory studies on the feasibility of the idea are under way and probably won't be completed before the end of the year.