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Last Updated: Wednesday, 26 October 2005, 06:03 GMT 07:03 UK
Wal-Mart calls for higher wages
Wal-Mart store in New Jersey, United States
Wal-Mart acknowledges many of its staff cannot afford healthcare
Retail giant Wal-Mart is calling for the minimum wage in the US to be raised - but it is not planning to lift the salaries it pays its own staff.

The firm's chief executive, Lee Scott, told analysts that the rate - stuck at $5.15 for almost a decade - was "out of date with the times".

Customers were struggling to make ends meet, so a rising minimum wage would be good for business, he said.

But he resisted calls for Wal-Mart to raise its own wages.

At the same time, Mr Scott called for the firm to become more energy-efficient.

It would aim for a 30% cut in energy use at stores and better fuel efficiency in its delivery fleet.

Profit problems

We can see first-hand at Wal-Mart how many of our customers are struggling to get by
Lee Scott, Wal-Mart chief executive

Mr Scott, speaking a week after the US Senate voted down a minimum wage rise to $6.25, said he normally would not take a position in public on this kind of issue.

But he said the hard-pressed status of many of his firm's customers changed the rules.

"We simply believe it is time for Congress to take a responsible look at the minimum wage and other legislation that may help working families," he said.

"We can see first-hand at Wal-Mart how many of our customers are struggling to get by."

Despite his call for a general rise in wages, Mr Scott said the firm would not be raising its own pay rates for "associates", as it calls its shopfloor staff, saying it would hammer the firm's $10bn a year profits.

Wal-Mart pays an average of $9.37 an hour.

"We almost always pay better" than competing firms, he said, both to analysts and in a speech to staff.

"But that is often overlooked or ignored in the public debate about Wal-Mart."

Still, the group - the biggest retailer in the world - acknowledged that healthcare in particular was a burden for its employees, promising to introduce a cheaper healthcare package.

Less than half its staff are covered by its health plan - with the rest either uninsured or reliant on the US's Medicaid system, designed to provide coverage for those left without health insurance by unemployment or low incomes.

'Do more'

The speech was met with a mixture of scepticism and appreciation by critics.

Pressure group Wal-Mart Watch said the company's "(recognition) that their employee health plan is inadequate for their employees and unfair to taxpayers forced to support their use of Medicaid" was to be appreciated.

But it said the group could easily afford to do more.

And another group, Wake-Up Wal-Mart - backed by the United Food and Commercial Workers union - said the firm was simply engaging in a publicity stunt "meant to repair a faltering public image".

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