By Caroline Pailliez
PARIS (Reuters) - Hundreds of workers at COVID-19 laboratories in France went on strike on Thursday, a trade union said, angry over poor working conditions as the coronavirus testing system buckles under huge demand.
The hard-left CGT union said the strike was disrupting testing in some towns and could drag on if laboratory owners failed to deal with staff shortages and increase pay.
The walkout comes as the government demands more and faster testing to fight a surge in new coronavirus cases.
"We're overwhelmed," laboratory nurse Aminata Diene, one of about 50 lab workers protesting outside a diagnostics centre on the edge of Paris said.
The 31-year-old said her Bioclinic laboratory in Bezons, which is staffed by four nurses and would normally handle 40 COVID-19 tests a day, was closed as a result of the strike.
"We can't be on the phone, physically greeting patients and carrying out tests all at once. We're exhausted, physically and mentally."
France has ramped up testing six-fold since the peak of the first wave and carried out 1.2 million tests last week, Health Minister Olivier Veran told a news conference. But at some testing centres, people queue around the block and results can take days because of the bottleneck in laboratories.
Le Figaro reported that in a meeting with senior ministers last week, President Emmanuel Macron said: "One million tests is all well and good, but it's pointless if the results arrive too late."
On Wednesday, France authorised the use of antigen tests, which deliver results faster than RT-PCR testing, to help ease pressure on the testing system. Veran said 5 million antigen test kits were on order and would arrive by October.
The antigen tests are expected to initially be used for hospital workers, care home staff and travellers at airports, a spokeswoman for the Paris regional health authority said.
Pascal Boudeau, a technician for 35 years at a medical laboratory outside Paris, said management needed to start listening after ignoring the calls for help for weeks.
"We're at our wits' end. We get verbally abused, sometimes physically. The pace is relentless," the CGT member said. "We've given up counting the overtime we do for free."
The lab workers strike coincided with street protests organised by the CGT and several smaller unions in numerous cities across France.
The CGT accuses Macron of destroying France's social security system, ruining public services and placing the interests of big business over those of workers even as the coronavirus wrecks the economy and forces job cuts.
(Reporting by Caroline Pailliez; Additional reporting and writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Janet Lawrence)