Should the United States encourage its consumers to buy imported goods manufactured by forced labor?

That appears to be the position of a group called the U.S.-USSR Trade and Economic Council (USTEC), which is lobbying for massive expansion of trade with the Soviet Union.A federal law enacted in 1930 forbids the importation of "all goods, wares, articles and merchandise mined, produced, and manufactured wholly or in part in any foreign country by convict and/or forced labor." Though it dates from the Stalin era, this law is relevant to today's Soviet economy, which includes more than a thousand prison camps and four-million prisoners.

A recent study commissioned by the AFL-CIO estimates that about one out of every 20 Soviet workers is a prisoner. One technique used to force these victims to produce is starvation.

USTEC has sent its membership, which includes hundreds of large U.S. corporations, a mailgram warning that Congress may tighten sanctions against forced labor. "One amendment," it said, "would effectively prohibit Soviet imports unless the president certifies to Congress that they have not been made by convicts or forced labor, which the president probably will not do . . . it is the Council's impression that the Congress has not been hearing from American industry sufficiently."

Washington has imposed economic sanctions against South Africa as a protest against apartheid. Imagine how much more severe those sanctions would be if one-twentieth of the black workers in that country were in prison.