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U.S. senator Bernie Sanders attended Walmart’s annual shareholder meeting on Wednesday to advocate for workers’ rights.

Stephen Lam/Reuters

Democratic U.S. presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders on Wednesday told Walmart Inc. shareholders and top executives that the world’s largest retailer should boost the “starvation”-level wages it pays its workers and stop fuelling 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 at the event asking the company to give hourly employees a seat on its board and raise base wages to US$15 an hour.

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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,” Mr. Sanders said.

“The American people are so tired of subsidizing the greed of some of the largest corporations in the United States,” he added.

The proposal, filed by Walmart worker Carolyn Davis, was buried at the end of the annual proxy filing. It was not likely to pass as the family of founder Sam Walton owns a majority of shares and the retailer asked shareholders to vote against it.

Walmart has raised its minimum wage twice since 2016 to US$11 an hour. But it remains lower than the US$15 an hour that rival Amazon.com Inc. pays employees. Retailers Target Corp. and Costco Wholesale Corp. also pay higher rates than Walmart.

Chief executive officer Doug McMillon said Walmart has raised wages in the United States by 50 per cent in the past four years and continues to increase wages on a market-by-market basis to hire and retain talent.

“We are not perfect, but together we are learning, we are listening and changing,” he said.

Walmart has said it pays an average of US$17.50 an hour to its hourly employees, including benefits.

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Mr. Sanders also complained about Mr. McMillon’s pay.”Walmart’s CEO is making a thousand times more than the average Walmart employee,” he said.

The ratio of Mr. McMillon’s US$23.6 million pay package last year compared with that of the median associate was 1,076 to 1.

Mr. Sanders, whose presence at the meeting drew more attention to the campaign for higher hourly U.S. wages, had three minutes to present and make comments.

Walmart, which employs nearly 1.5 million Americans and is the largest U.S. private-sector employer, drew sharp criticism from labour 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 Mr. 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.

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