UP to 170 workers will be brought over from Vanuatu to help with the Northern Territory's mango harvest.
Many of the workers are expected to head to Katherine where the bulk of the Territory's mangoes are grown.
The Pacific islanders are part of a trial scheme organised by the NT and Federal Governments.
The NT Farmer's Association has forecast a shortage of 800 to 1000 workers from this month.
There are currently no confirmed cases of coronavirus in Vanuatu but the program is a direct result of the pandemic with loss of the traditional picking workforce causing dire shortages.
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There have been fears much of the harvest, which gets into full swing next month, will be left to rot on the trees because of the loss of pickers.
The pilot will be open to Vanuatu citizens initially, with other nations potentially joining the program later.
The governments agreed to the trial to address the labour shortages affecting NT farmers.
Federal agriculture minister, David Littleproud, said the COVID-19 pandemic had impacted agriculture with restrictions impeding international and domestic travel for would-be workers.
"The Northern Territory's mango producers in particular are facing a rough road ahead without the workers they rely on for their harvest," Minister Littleproud said.
"That's going to come to a head when the mango harvest starts in earnest in September.
"This trial will see up to 170 workers under the Seasonal Worker Programme come to Australia to help with the 2020 harvest, with more workers to potentially follow subject to a review of the first cohort and approval for additional numbers by the NT Government.
"No one wants to see fruit and vegetables wasted and this trial will help make sure that doesn't happen."
The governments insist there will be stringent conditions enforced to ensure the safety of Australians and Northern Territorians - including the 14-day self-isolation requirements.
"Growers will also need to meet conditions to participate including stringent labour market testing already required under the Seasonal Worker Program," Mr Littleproud said.
Workers will be recruited from Vanuatu (reflecting Vanuatu's strong representation in past cohorts working during the Northern Territory mango season).
The Samoan Government has also been approached and is considering the proposal.
The workers will fly into Darwin and undergo a mandatory, supervised 14-day quarantine at the Howard Springs quarantine facility and required a negative COVID-19 test result before leaving.
"The Territory's growers, more than any others, rely on seasonal workers and working holidaymakers- COVID-19 has virtually stopped that labour supply.
"To those working holiday makers who chose to stay in Australia, thank you for being here - and Australians looking for work, please consider heading north to take advantage of the work there," Minister Littleproud said.
Industry welcomes scheme
NEWS of the trial scheme was welcomed by some of the major horticulture groups.
The Australian Fresh Produce Alliance (AFPA) said it appreciated the commitment the government has shown to finding solutions to the workforce challenges
AFPA chief executive officer, Michael Rogers, said expanding on trials like this were going to be critically important moving forward.
"Between international travel restrictions and domestic border closures it is increasingly difficult for farmers to source workers," Mr Rogers said.
"Australians have always been encouraged to do this kind of work, but despite high unemployment we still see application rates from Australians for fruit and vegetable picking roles at 8 per cent or even lower in some regional areas.
According to the AFPA, there are about 70,000 short-term harvest roles in industry, across Australia.
Ausveg was equally supportive of the scheme with CEO James Whiteside saying it would help address growing concerns about a shortage of workers on fruit and vegetable farms particularly given the decline in Working Holiday Makers in Australia.
"The announcement of this trial is a welcome acknowledgement from the government that the industry is facing significant labour challenges and that it is willing to engage with industry to find practical solutions to ensure growers are able to harvest their fruits and vegetables," Mr Whiteside said.
"This trial is a good first step to finding solutions to the industry's current and pending labour shortages, and we hope to be able to work closely with each state and territory government, as well as the federal government, to ensure that our industry has the workers it needs to harvest crops."
System will support scheme
ACTING minister for immigration, citizenship, migrant services and multicultural affairs, Alan Tudge, said with appropriate quarantine arrangements in place, seasonal and Pacific workers can continue to safely support Australian farmers facing critical workforce shortages.
"Of course, farmers can only employ people under the Seasonal Worker Programme and Pacific Labour Scheme if they can demonstrate that no Australian is available to do the work."
The trial builds on the visa changes the Government has already made to keep temporary workers in Australia longer to support critical sectors like agriculture during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Senator Sam McMahon said the trial was a critical first step towards helping mango growers with their upcoming harvest season.
This industry produced almost half of our national production of mangoes in 2018-19 - 32,900 tonnes worth nearly $109 million.
Northern Territory horticulture industry production in 2018-19 was valued at $251.2 million, with indirect impact on the rest of the NT economy estimated at $128.1 million.
The Territory horticulture industry directly employs an approximately 4300 people with another 2100 people employed indirectly.
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