By Nandita Bose
ROGERS, Ark. (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.
"Despite the incredible wealth of Walmart's owners" the company pays "starvation wages," Sanders said at Walmart's shareholder meeting.
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' remarks at the meeting drew attention to his campaign for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination and 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 did not pass since a majority of shares are owned by the family of the founder, the late Sam Walton, and the retailer had 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 $23.6 million pay package last year. The ratio compared with that of the median employee was 1,076 to 1.
With his frequent attacks on Walmart, and other major employers, Sanders has been trying to distinguish himself from former Vice President Joe Biden, the front-runner in the race for the Democratic nomination, who also is making a pitch to working-class Americans.
His presence on Wednesday could give Sanders a boost when the two dozen Democratic contenders begin to compete for endorsements from the nation's biggest labour unions.
Protesters gathered outside the meeting, many from the labour group "United for Respect" which has pushed for a worker presence on Walmart's board. They held signs supporting the Sanders 2020 Presidential campaign and calling for a $15 per hour U.S. minimum wage.
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 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 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 from its current $7.25 an hour.
"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.
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 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.
(Reporting by Nandita Bose in Rogers, Arkansas; editing by David Gregorio, Lisa Shumaker and Bill Berkrot)