By Caroline Pailliez
PARIS (Reuters) - One of France's biggest trade unions said a large number of staff at private COVID testing facilities across the country will walk out on Thursday over work conditions that one employee said were like being in a war zone.
The planned one-day industrial action risks disrupting a COVID-19 testing system which in France - as in some other parts of Europe - is already under severe stress.
At many testing sites in France, people are queuing around the block to get tests, some test results are delayed because laboratories are overwhelmed and the government is demanding more and faster testing.
Thursday's planned strike action was being organised by the CGT trade union. Eric Sellini, federal secretary of the union's laboratory branch, said he did not know how many facilities would have to close, but he said that COVID testing would be disrupted.
"Tomorrow will be a real large-scale movement across the whole of the laboratories in France," he told Reuters.
Pascal Boudeau, a technician for 35 years at a medical laboratory on the outskirts of Paris, said he would be taking part in the national strike on Thursday.
"Our working conditions, it's like Stalingrad," he said, referring to the site of a fierce World War Two battle between the Soviet Red Army and Nazi Germany's forces.
"The secretaries don't answer the phone any more because they get sworn at on every other call," said Boudeau.
"The patients are aggressive, on edge. They want their results right away, but there's only a limited number of spaces. Some people started fighting while queuing out front," he said.
He said he and his colleagues had received COVID bonuses in previous months, but wanted pay increases and to be paid for extra hours worked.
In a prelude to Thursday's strike, staff at around 20 health testing clinics in southern France operated by a firm called Biofusion went on strike on Wednesday.
Some of the firm's clinics had to close their doors, union representatives said, although the main testing centre was still open. A union representative said staff would strike again on Thursday if management did not meet their demands for extra pay.
Biofusion did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
A representative of employers in the sector, Francois Blanchecotte, said his organisation had appealed to the government for financial aid.
"The private sector does nearly 80% of tests. If the tests stop, I don't need to explain what situation we'll be in," he said.
(Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Mike Collett-White)