This week the ministers of labor from the 30 OAS countries gather in Santo Domingo to confront two of the most intractable problems gripping the Western Hemisphere: rampant unemployment and pervasive inflation.

Since 1963 the region's labor ministers have met every three years to thrash out the critical and common challenges facing industry, workers, governments--and especially labor movements--in the Americas.

From the start a strategic aim of these conferences was adoption of the principle that the ultimate goal of development is basic improvement in living standards for all segments of the population. Now, most OAS states routinely insist that national planning take a "balanced" approach, bringing in both economic and social factors.

Policy directives of these conferences have led to:

* Formation of a regional center on labor administration;

* Broad training programs in labor economics;

* A regional project on occupational health and safety;

* Initiatives to cope with mass migration--which affects all OAS nations--on a regional basis;

* Vast improvements in the relationship among vocational education, apprenticeship and technical training. erhaps the most interesting outcome of these labor meetings has been the extensive promotion of horizontal cooperation among OAS members. Traditionally, South America looked towards Paris, London or New York, and the English-speaking Caribbean was linked primarily to the British Commonwealth.

Today cooperation on a "South-South" basis is extensive and rapidly growing. Thus, Venezuela is providing technical assistance on a minimum wage system for Bolivia, and Mexico is helping Panama, Peru and Nicaragua on labor statistics and labor studies. Ecuador and Brazil are involved in vocational training interchange.

One of the more important programs is that of the OAS in establishing Workers Banks. These exist now in 10 countries and have combined assets of more than $4.5 billion. Even here, horizontal cooperation is the norm, as the Workers Bank of tiny Honduras helped establish a counterpart in much larger Colombia.

A remarkable aspect of the new era for labor in the hemisphere has been the growth of tripartite agencies which forge "social consensus" among business, government and labor. At first these were often built up in the principle that "father knows best," as governments used them simply to inform the public of critical labor issues. This situation has changed dramatically. Now consultation among all three sectors generally comes first. After agreement is reached national courses of action are acted upon.

As the labor ministers convene in Santo Domingo, though, this system of "social consensus" is being sorely tested. The system took off in a period of broad economic expansion when most regional countries had growth rates over the past 20 years of some 6 percent to 7 percent.

Last year this growth pattern was severely shaken. As in the United States and Europe, prices have skyrocketed and family incomes have been undermined. Also, high foreign debts are hurting economies and export prices have slumped.

Most experts seem to feel that a strengthening rather than a weakening of the policies on social consensus are urgently required. One thing is certain: If the OAS ministers of labor are to help in pulling the region out of its economic doldrums they have their work cut out for them.

Given their successful track record of the past two decades the outlook for their efforts, though, is generally optimistic.