NEW YORK Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has been coming under a lot of fire lately. Two of its suppliers were found to have been making goods in a factory where 112 people died in Bangladesh, and employees throughout the country walked out of the store on one of the busiest retail days of the year to protest bad working conditions.
But the company, never a crowd favorite at worker-solidarity gatherings, may be trying to improve its image.
In a speech Tuesday to the National Retail Federation in New York, Wal-Mart U.S. Chief Executive Bill Simon said the company would hire any returning veteran who wants a job. He also said the company would buy more products from the United States and help more employees become full time.
It was the 2012 election and the gridlock in Congress that motivated Simon to introduce these initiatives, he said.
"The election clarified for me that it's time for those of us outside politics to get to work," he said. "After all, it's the private sector that creates jobs."
Wal-Mart said it plans to hire more than 100,000 veterans in the next five years as part of a program to offer a job to "any honorably discharged veteran in his or her first 12 months off active duty." Simon said his company plans to begin hiring them after Memorial Day.
"Not every returning veteran wants to work in retail," he said. "But every veteran who does will have a place to go."
Veterans will be placed in jobs in stores, clubs, distribution centers and the corporate office, he said.
Some retail workers questioned whether veterans want to work for Wal-Mart. They include Edgar Lucas, 38, a U.S. Army veteran who has worked for Wal-Mart and other retailers in New York.
"If you are looking out for the veterans, they need something that's guaranteed 40 hours a week," he said. "They need to know their schedules. Everybody knows that Wal-Mart, they'll work you 28 hours, make sure that you don't get 40," he said.
During Simon's speech, a group of protesters in the hall unveiled a banner addressing the retail federation. "NRF: Stop Clocking Out Workers, It's Time for Good Jobs and Just Hours," it said. Protesters chanted in the hall until being escorted out.
Simon pledged to bring more transparency to the store's scheduling system to allow part-time workers to choose their own hours, and said Wal-Mart would make internal changes to help part-timers become full time. He didn't provide details.
Simon concluded his speech by saying that Walmarts and Sam's Clubs will increase what the companies buy in the United States including sporting goods, games and paper products by $50 billion over the next 10 years.