Workers from Vanuatu could fly into Australia despite the coronavirus travel ban so they can help farmers in the Northern Territory harvest mangoes.
The federal government is considering a pilot program that would allow up to 200 workers to be flown into the Northern Territory.
Farmers across the country are facing workforce shortages despite surging unemployment numbers, while international and state travel restrictions have blocked the transit of seasonal workers.
Northern Territory Mango Industry Association president Leo Skliros said he has been in discussions with authorities about about the proposal to help during the harvest season.
“It’s a win-win for everyone,” he told SBS News.
“It’s definitely very important because we need to increase the labour pool."
The mango industry is lobbying for the workers to arrive in Australia by mid-August, which would allow pickers to be on farms in early September.
The coronavirus pandemic has placed pressure on the harvest season’s workforce, which is dependent on backpackers and fly-in workers.
“We are working on getting a plane load in towards early-to-mid August so very soon,” Mr Skliros said.
“We just have to keep trying to prepare to get that workforce in.”
The Northern Territory’s Primary Industries Minister Paul Kirby has confirmed plans for the pilot program have been agreed with the federal government.
The territory's chief health minister has backed a plan that would see workers required to quarantine for 14-days on entry at a former village for gas employees at Howard Springs, near Darwin.
But Agriculture Minister David Littleproud has warned a number of issues still need to be resolved before the proposal can go ahead.
"There has been no formal approval provided to the Northern Territory government for this pilot to commence," he said.
"There are a number of issues that remain unresolved that the federal government is working through which will hopefully be resolved quickly."
The federal government is understood to be working on new measures to meet labour shortages, with Mr Littleproud this week warning of a reluctance among Australian workers to go and pick fruit.
Mr Skliros said growers have agreed to help cover the costs of the quarantine period and flights from Vanuatu, which has recorded no COVID-19 cases.
He is hopeful the pilot program can give rise to a number of flights from the Pacific to bolster their workforce.
"We’re believing the shortfall of labour that we need to get in will be around 1,000 workers for the territory," he said.
Labor’s employment spokesperson Brendan O’Connor said questions remain over how such a pilot could proceed.
“Federal Labor supports the seasonal worker program, however the questions that need to be asked include: is there a legitimate local labour supply, and if not, is it safe for people to travel, and will they avoid the exploitation which has previously been reported under this scheme?" he said.
The National Farmers Federation has warned serious workforce shortages are set to impact the citrus and fruit picking seasons.
"If we could look at bringing in a workforce that will help get crops off trees or out of the ground then we definitely should do that," chief executive Tony Maher said.
The group said the farming sector is working with government on solutions to help farmers access the workers they need.
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