Marie-Anne DAYÉ

Marie-Anne DAYÉ

Conceptrice - Rédactrice

UPA Hotline: Heidi and Karina on the phone

The call line inaugurated by the Fédération de l’Union des producteurs agricoles (UPA) of Montérégie can answer the questions of thousands of temporary foreign workers. Meet the agents who, on the phone, ease the worries of these workers.

Text and photos Marie-Anne Dayé

“Why haven’t I received my government cheque?”, “How do I apply for parental benefits?”, “What is covered by my health insurance?”, these are the types of questions that Heidi Barajas Silva and Karina Badel answer, in Spanish, on the hotline of the UPA Montérégie.

6,000 calls in one year

Launched in 2021 at the initiative of Julie Tremblay, director of the Centre d’emploi agricole et formation agricole of the UPA Montérégie, and thanks to funding from the Government of Canada, this referral hotline is a hub of information for temporary foreign agricultural workers. From Monday to Friday, Heidi, with the help of Karina and their colleague Fernando during the busy periods of March to October, answer as best they can to the questions of workers who, for the most part, are newly arrived in Quebec and do not speak French. In one year, they received over 6,000 calls.

When the question concerns taxation, the UPA is able to provide solutions. In fact, the organization files 21,000 tax returns per year for TFWs, parental benefit and pension plan applications. Yet, if the worker has a legal or health-related request, for example, they are referred to an agency or government body that has the capacity to help them.

Heidi answers calls Monday through Friday from 8am to 4:30pm between November 15 and April 30. From May 1 to November 14, service is available Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday and Thursday from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Photo Marie-Anne Dayé.

Since the line does not operate 24 hours a day, the team created a WhatsApp number to make the service as accessible as possible. Thus, the worker can send a message during the weekend, before his shift at 6am or late at night, and he will be answered during operating hours. They can also ask questions on the Facebook group, which is not accessible to producers in order to preserve the confidentiality of workers.

For Karina Badel, a native of Colombia with a degree in economics and international cooperation, the line’s success is due to the fact that she, Heidi and Fernando speak Spanish and French. “We try to explain things as clearly as possible to the worker, and sometimes to the producer. It’s true that in countries like Guatemala and Mexico, the tax laws are not the same as here,” she says.

Building strong bridges between TFWs and employers

Prior to the existence of the line, the worker would mostly go to his or her employer with questions, who would then turn to the UPA. However, there could be a succession of “mixed messages” due to misunderstandings and language barriers, says Julie. So, instead of having this intermediary, the worker can contact the UPA directly in his mother tongue. “It develops his autonomy and it takes the burden off the producer, so everyone wins”, explains the director of the Centre d’emploi. Sometimes the UPA will try to calm things down in the case of a disagreement or confusion before “it explodes and the worker doesn’t want to come back,” she continues. “We’d like to have harmonious relationships between workers and producers. That’s why it’s important to work together”, Karina adds.

“They took up a great challenge,” says Julie Tremblay (middle) to Heidi (front) and Karina (back). Photo Marie-Anne Dayé.

Listening and patience

In some cases, the service goes beyond simply providing information. “There are stories of workers who are alone in Canada, who are depressed. They need the support of an agency,” says Heidi, who has had to respond to heartbreaking calls. As a psychologist in Mexico, her home country, she is well equipped to do this.

Heidi says she is “passionate” about her work. “I love talking to the workers. I’m an immigrant myself, so I educate people and refer them to consulates or agencies. Karina looks at her colleague and adds, “To do this kind of work, you have to be a good listener and have patience. A worker comes in here and knows nothing. You have to explain once, twice, three times how things work here and give them solutions.”

The three platforms (the call line, the WhatsApp group and the Facebook group) are excellent ways to communicate important information to workers, such as tips on how to avoid fraud, reminders and important dates. For example, they often remind TFW not to close their bank accounts when they leave Canada, as they may not receive certain refunds from the government.

The UPA line is mainly focused on the Montérégie region, although the agents try their best to serve workers in other regions. Julie Tremblay would like to see the service extended to other parts of the province in order to provide workers with the most local information possible.

UPA de la Montérégie call line: 1 888 454-3998

WhatsApp number: 514 235-2765

Facebook group: facebook.com/groups/tatquebec

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