Sweatshops continue to exist in the United States, with businesses in the restaurant, apparel manufacturing and meat-processing industries the worst offenders, said a government report.

The General Accounting Office report released this week said Hispanics and Asians were the ethnic groups most heavily represented among workers in restaurant and apparel sweatshops.The GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, based its assessment on interviews with more than 100 federal and state officials nationwide surveyed between January and May 1988.

The report said some of the reasons cited for multiple labor-law violations were similar to those that existed in the 19th century: a large immigrant work force and low profit margins in labor-intensive industries.

Rep. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., who requested the GAO study, said the results show "the ugly side of the Reagan legacy.

"I think most Americans believe sweatshops vanished generations ago, but they are here today, in all parts of the country," he said in a statement released with the report.

Schumer supported the report's conclusion that penalties for labor law violations must be increased to deter abuses.

"As it stands, employers can violate the minimum wage law and if they get caught they only repay lost wages," the New York congressman said. "Right now, the penalties aren't even a slap on the wrist, they are more like a knowing wink."

The GAO described a sweatshop, a term not defined in federal law or regulations, as "a business that regularly violates both wage or child labor and safety or health laws."

The agency excluded from its study industries such as construction and agriculture where work is performed outside of enclosed structures. It also excluded work done in employees' homes.

The agency said it received responses to its survey from officials in the District of Columbia and all states except Oregon. The GAO also surveyed federal officials: 10 regional administrators of the Labor Department's Wage and Hour Division, 10 Occupational Safety and Health Administration regional officials, and 33 Immigration and Naturalization Service district directors.

The restaurant, apparel manufacturing and meat-processing industries were most often cited by these officials as having the most serious problems with labor law violations, the GAO said.

Officials reported problems in every state except Alaska and Hawaii.

The results of the surveys "suggest that many workers may be underpaid and working in unsafe or unhealthy conditions," the GAO said.

The agency gave no estimate of the total number of workers affected, but said one respondent estimated that half of the approximately 5,000 restaurants in Chicago, employing about 25,000 people, were chronic labor law violators.

The report said officials estimated Hispanics represented an average of 53 percent of workers in restaurant sweatshops and an average of 60 percent of workers in apparel manufacturing shops that are chronic labor law violators. The comparable figures for Asians were 25 percent in restaurants and 35 percent in apparel.

Examples of the violations found include failure to keep required records of wages, hours worked and injuries; wages below the minimum wage, which currently is $3.35 per hour, or failure to pay overtime; illegal work by minors; fire hazards; and work procedures that cause crippling illnesses, the GAO said.