Australia could allow up to 15,000 Pacific workers into the country to plug desperate farm labour shortages caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Tonga, Vanuatu and East Timor have agreed to restart their schemes.
Pacific Minister Alex Hawke said the labour programs were critical for agriculture as harvest season approaches.
“That means 15,000 eligible job-ready workers, who have experience in Australia, who’ve been pre-vetted, are ready to come to Australia and supply our markets,” he told parliament on Thursday.
Mr Hawke said the federal government would work with states and territories to bring in as many people as possible under the schemes.
“While we fill the shortages in the agricultural sector we know those vital remittances really do make a great contribution to GDP in countries in the region,” he said.
More than 320 workers have arrived in the Northern Territory to pick mangoes since the government restarted Pacific labour schemes in August.
The Pacific labour boost comes after farmers and tourism operators called on the government to restart backpacker travel.
Australia is facing an estimated farm labour shortage of 26,000 workers.
National Farmers’ Federation chief Tony Mahar and Backpacker and Youth Tourism Advisory Panel representative Wendi Aylward proposed a three-stage plan.
All backpackers would be tested for coronavirus before leaving their home country and quarantine for two weeks.
A trial period of selected sponsor agencies specialising in youth travel, with a focus on farm work and nannies, would begin the three-stage plan.
The rules would then be relaxed and the program extended into more states as domestic border restrictions ease and more international travel bubbles are created.
The final stage would retain testing and quarantine requirements, but backpackers would be allowed to travel independently with work arranged on arrival.
Mr Mahar warned the fruit and vegetable industry could suffer a $6.3 billion reduction in value, while fresh produce costs could soar by 60 per cent.
“It may also place pressure on the availability of some varieties of fruit and vegetables as farms lack the staff needed to pick and pack this crop and plant the next one,” he said.
“While employing Australians will always take precedence, a safe restart to the Working Holiday Maker program would assist to address agriculture labour shortages.”