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Washington (AFP) - Liberal 2020 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders confronted the world's biggest retailer on Wednesday, entering Walmart's shareholder meeting and accusing top executives of paying "starvation wages" to company employees.
The popular independent senator traveled to Arkansas and attended Walmart's shareholder gathering, where he called on Walmart to reserve a seat on its board for at least one of the company's 1.5 million employees.
Sanders, speaking at the meeting on behalf of a Walmart employee, read out parts of a resolution which also demands that the company raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour from the current $11.
With top Walmart executives like board of directors chairman Greg Penner in the room, Sanders described Walmart's owners, the Walton family, as the wealthiest in America, worth some $175 billion.
"And yet despite the incredible wealth of its owner, Walmart pays many of its employees starvation wages -- wages that are so low that many of these employees are forced to rely on government programs like food stamps, Medicaid and public housing in order to survive," Sanders said in a three-minute address.
"Frankly, the American people are sick and tired of subsidizing the greed of some of the largest and most profitable corporations in this country."
Sanders, 77, has long championed American workers. On the campaign trail in recent months he has decried the income inequality that has deepened divisions across the United States.
He directly accused Walmart of fueling such disparities, saying Americans are "outraged by the grotesque level of income and wealth inequality in America, as demonstrated by the CEO of Walmart making 1,000 times more than the average Walmart employee."
Walmart's chief executive, Doug McMillon, was in attendance and addressed the shareholders.
But while he and board chairman Penner welcomed the senator to the meeting, McMillon spoke peripherally about Sanders's concerns.
"We're not perfect, but together we're listening, we're learning, and we're changing," he said.
Sanders also held an impromptu rally outside the meeting, where he repeated his call for Walmart to "pay your workers a living wage."
"As you all know, the starting wage at Walmart now is $11 an hour, and people can't make it on $11 an hour."
Sanders noted that Walmart rivals Amazon, Costco and Target have all raised their minimum wages towards $15.
Walmart has upgraded its pay structure twice since 2016. The corporation has defended its wages, saying it pays a total of $17.50 an hour to full-time employees when its various benefits are taken into account.