To a police colonel in the northern Caucasus, they are nothing more than "money-grubbers . . . who work from dawn to dusk, don't drink, live in swinish conditions and suffer untold hardships just for the sake of half a sack of money."

That makes shabashniki, as migrant seasonal workers are known here, alien to "the principles of our economy and of our morals . . . and moreover socially harmful," concluded A. Didyenko in a letter to the government newspaper Izvestia.

This is one view of a group of often well-to-do workers whose precarious existence on the fringes of private enterprise has prompted a hot debate in the Soviet press.

Another view comes from a shabashnik himself.

"Yes, we earn good wages," said one who dared not give his name to the newspaper. "And this automatically puts the law enforcement bodies on the alert."

In recent months, as public dialogue about Soviet economic options has opened up slightly, the shabashnik has emerged as the focus of two key questions: To what extent can people accumulate private wealth in the Soviet Union? And how should the state control it?

The debate has reached no conclusion, but overall has been rather positive toward the shabashniki, whose initiative and drive are contrasted to sluggish performances in the official economy.

Much of the current debate over personal wealth has to do with so-called "unearned income," or illegal profits made in the Soviet Union's pervasive black market.

Illegal "unearned income" is "an economic, social and moral evil," all seem to agree. In a speech in Leningrad, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev pointed to the problem: "People are so indignant over the fact of unearned incomes that they are calling out for the drafting of a . . . legislative act."

But there is also a grayer area involving illegal "earned" income -- a mystifying concept to capitalists, and one that is now perplexing Soviet economic planners.

Illegal "earned" income is the dilemma of the shabashnik. He does work that is needed, often in agriculture or rural construction. One estimate by the Academy of Sciences concludes that half of rural construction is done by shabashnik brigades.

The shabashnik works in groups and his earnings depend on his product.

The difference is that the shabashnik works outside the system, without links to government ministries, under private arrangements with enterprises or collective farms that are looking for ways of getting long overdue work done.

As a rule, the newspaper debate indicates, the shabashnik works harder, gets the job done faster and gets paid more -- either in cash or in kind -- than salaried workers.

According to one article in Izvestia, the origins of the present-day shabashniki date to the early 1960s, when itinerant workers -- mainly North Koreans -- joined groups looking for temporary work, mostly in southern regions.

The practice has spread and now involves people of all nationalities but, according to one shabashnik, the workers are still called "Koreans."

There are few complete statistics on shabashniki. One report said that about 100,000 migrate from the trans-Caucasian republics per year, the same number from the northern Caucasus and about 50,000 each from Moldavia, the Baltic republics and western Byelorussia and the Ukraine.

"Seasonal work has become a real calamity in our region," wrote a student from the Chechen-Ingush region. "Walk through some villages in the summer and you will see that every other house is shut up. Whole families have gone off on seasonal work."

"Like nomads, we wander back and forth with our suitcases," another said. Seasonal workers, she added, can always be recognized by their jewelry and clothes -- leather coats, jeans, imported boots.

In a society like this, where people's lives are hemmed in by a network of checkpoints, it is inevitable that the shabashnikis' free-wheeling ways should irk authorities.

Didyenko, the police lieutenant colonel in the Stavropol region, for instance, noted that shabashniki have no residence permits. That means they can live in "an unauthorized place" for only a month and a half before he ejects them.

And, come harvest time, in cases where they are paid in kind, they often bribe local officials, drivers and market authorities to unload their produce.

"How else can we treat these people?" Didyenko asked. "They are breaking the law in every way."

The anonymous shabashnik, whose letter to Izvestia ran alongside Didyenko's, did not disagree.

"It is true our work is semilegal . . . we are forced to commit major offenses, even crimes." Bribing, he explained, is the only way the shabashniki can get the produce they have earned to market.

"Any traffic officer can detain us for two days to establish identity, during which time our produce can rot."

One of the first stories about shabashniki in the press this spring told of the director of a collective farm sentenced to seven years in jail for hiring a road crew and paying it more money to get a crucial market road fixed.

Concluded the newspaper: "We have encountered criminals like the director before -- honest people who take the initiative to accomplish something beneficial."

Izvestia noted that most of the anti-shabashnik letters it received came from various controlling and inspecting organizations, angry because seasonal work "does not fit in with the rules, instructions and norms."

The shabashnikis' defenders also note that other people are simply envious, prone to the Soviet urge to interfere in a neighbor's business.

Others argue that the shabashniki have an attitude toward work that Soviet society needs.

"Forbidding things is easy but teaching people a work ethic is more difficult . . . . We limit people in their desire to work at home, in doing extra work on weekends, in working before work or after work . . . . If we managed to make everyone interested in work we would rapidly and drastically improve the economy of the country and our own well-being," wrote an anonymous reader from Donetsk.

But until a new legal definition is found to allow the shabashnik to go ahead with his work, he is likely to be hounded by the bureaucratic watchdogs of socialist norms.

One former shabashnik, a construction worker, wrote to say he had quit the work because he "grew tired of being afraid of the militia, of prosecutors and of my wife's reproaches."

He went back to work at his factory, where repairs were under way on the shop floor. Already six months in the works, the repair job was far from done.

"It is a mockery of work," sniffed the erstwhile shabashnik. "My brigade could have done the job in two months."

Or, as the author of the article in Izvestia concluded, "While we are arguing about shabashniki, they are out there working."