Workers from Vanuatu to harvest mangoes in the NT despite Australia's coronavirus travel ban

The trial will see up to 170 workers come to Australia to help with the 2020 harvest.

The National Farmers’ Federation has welcomed the pilot program, saying it is a "pragmatic decision" needed to save this season's mango harvest.

The National Farmers’ Federation has welcomed the pilot program, saying it is a "pragmatic decision" needed to save this season's mango harvest. Source: AussieMangoes/Facebook

Despite Australia's borders being shut to overseas arrivals, up to 170 workers from Vanuatu will be brought to the Northern Territory under a pilot program aimed at filling labour shortages in the mango growing industry.

The Northern Territory Farmer's Association is forecasting a shortage of between 800 and 1,000 workers this month.

Federal agricultural minister David Littleproud said COVID-19 travel restrictions have drastically cut the supply of seasonal workers, requiring the government to intervene. 

“No one wants to see fruit and vegetables wasted and this trial will help make sure that doesn’t happen," he said on Tuesday.

“The Territory’s growers, more than any others, rely on seasonal workers and working holidaymakers - COVID-19 has virtually stopped that labour supply."

Northern Territory Chief Health Officer Hugh Heggie has given approval for the pilot to commence.

The positions will initially be available to people from Vanuatu, with citizens of other Pacific nations potentially joining later.

Mr Littleproud said more workers beyond the initial 170 could be eligible to join the program, pending a review of the pilot. 

He said the new pilot program would provide important work opportunities.

“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."

In April, the federal government announced that those on Seasonal Worker Program visas would be allowed to extend their stay in Australia for another 12 months. 

Employers will still be required to participate in labour market testing to ensure there are no Australians available to do the work. Workers arriving in the NT will also have to undergo 14-days of self-isolation before commencing employment.

Acting Immigration Minister Alan Tudge said there would be compliance with COVID-19 protocols.

“With appropriate quarantine arrangements in place, seasonal and Pacific workers can continue to safely support Australian farmers facing critical workforce shortages."

Northern Territory Mango Industry Association president Leo Skliros told SBS News last week he was hoping to see reinforcements from the Pacific arrive in Australia by mid-August.

The National Farmers’ Federation has welcomed the pilot program, saying it is a "pragmatic decision" needed to save this season's mango harvest amid the pandemic.

“The beginning of the NT’s mango picking season is imminent. In a normal year, NT mango growers depend on a collective direct 2,100-strong workforce, including a combination of locals, backpackers and seasonal worker program visa holders," CEO Tony Mahar said.

“COVID-19 travel restrictions have left growers extremely concerned about how they are going to source the workforce they need to pick and pack this year’s crop."

He said he hoped the model of a trans-Tasman travel bubble for seasonal workers would be used in other parts of Australia's agricultural industry.

“The Shearing Contractors Association of Australia estimates that without the usual 500 visiting New Zealand shearers, up to 430,000 sheep may not be shorn on time."

NT Country Liberal Party Senator Sam McMahon said the announcement would help local farmers as well as seasonal workers and their families. 

“I’m confident that this trial will not only help Territory producers, but it is essential for those seasonal workers who rely on this work to support their families and communities." 

The NT has the lowest number of COVID-19 cases of any Australian state or territory at 34. It has not recorded any deaths.

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Published 4 August 2020 at 5:16pm, updated 4 August 2020 at 5:24pm
By Biwa Kwan