ROGERS, ARKANSAS - Democratic U.S. presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders on Wednesday told Walmart shareholders and top executives that the world's largest retailer should boost the "starvation"-level wages it pays its workers and stop fueling income inequality.
Speaking at Walmart's shareholder meeting, the U.S. senator said: "Despite the incredible wealth of Walmart's owners" the company pays "starvation wages."
He presented a shareholder proposal asking the company to give hourly employees a seat on its board and raise base wages to $15 an hour.
Walmart's "wages are so low, many of these employees are forced to rely on government programs like food stamps, Medicaid and public housing in order to survive," Sanders said.
"The American people are so tired of subsidizing the greed of some of the largest corporations in the United States," he added.
Sanders had three minutes to present and make comments. His remarks at the meeting drew attention to his campaign for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination as well as to the drive for higher hourly U.S. wages, one of his signature issues.
The proposal, filed by Walmart worker Carolyn Davis, was buried at the end of the annual proxy filing. It had no chance of passing since a majority of shares are owned by the family of the founder, the late Sam Walton, and the retailer has asked shareholders to vote against it.
Sanders also complained that "Walmart's CEO is making a thousand times more than the average Walmart employee."
Walmart's CEO received a 423.6 million pay package last year. The ratio compared with that of the median associate was 1,076 to 1.
Protesters gathered outside the meeting, many from the labor group "United for Respect" which has pushed for a worker presence on Walmart's board. They held signs supporting Sanders 2020 presidential campaign and calling for a $15 per hour U.S. minimum wage.
"What do we want? 15. When do we want it? Now!" the protesters chanted as Sanders briefly addressed workers and the media in a parking lot outside the meeting.
Final results of the vote were expected later in the afternoon.
Walmart has raised its minimum wage twice since 2016 to $11 an hour, still lower than the $15 an hour that rival Amazon.com Inc pays employees. Retailers Target and Costco also pay higher rates than Walmart.
Chief Executive Officer Doug McMillon said Walmart has raised wages in the United States by 50 percent in the past four years and continues to increase wages on a market-by-market basis to hire and retain talent. He also urged Congress to raise the federal minimum wage, calling the current minimum of $7.25 an hour "too low."
"We are not perfect, but together we are learning, we are listening and changing," he said.
Walmart has said it pays an average of $17.50 an hour to its hourly employees, including benefits.
Last year, Sanders introduced the Stop Walmart Act, a bill that would prevent large companies from buying back stock unless they pay all employees at least $15 an hour.
The U.S. Senator has also backed campaigns to push Amazon and Disney to raise their minimum wages, an issue that has found support with all Democratic candidates running for the presidential nomination.
Walmart, which employs nearly 1.5 million Americans and is the largest U.S. private-sector employer, drew sharp criticism from labor groups and unions when it changed the format of its annual meeting last year, splitting it into two separate events.
The business meeting at which Sanders spoke is now held a few days before the big shareholder event, which draws thousands of employees. This year and the year before, the company rushed through shareholder proposals at the business meeting, which had a fraction of the attendees, in less than 30 minutes.