Wal-Mart's chief criticism is in the area of worker pay. In a study last year, the University of California-Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education estimated that an increase in pay to $15 per hour for Wal-Mart employees would mean an additional $4.95 billion in annual income for the company's nearly 1 million hourly employees.
Additionally, a 2015 University of New Hampshire survey found that nearly three-quarters of those polled oppose a broad minimum wage mandate of $15 per hour. Echoing a frequent critique of the minimum wage policy, the survey found that five out of six economists believed it would have negative effects on youth employment levels.
Supporters of a higher minimum wage, however, remain undeterred. "Wal-Mart's business model is pretty simple," said Amy Traub, an associate director of policy and research at equality advocacy group Demos, at a recent debate hosted by Intelligence Squared U.S. (IQ2) in New York.
"The company pays its workers poverty wages. It offers few benefits, and it manipulates workers' hours and understaffs its stores," Traub said. "That low-wage business model serves one purpose: It's so the company can maximize profits that go to some of the wealthiest people on the planet."
Other retailers have shown they can pay workers a living wage, offer good benefits and fair schedules, and still turn a profit, Traub added, citing Costco and grocer Trader Joe's as examples. She charged Wal-Mart with adding to the problem of stagnant working-class wages by wielding its "tremendous influence throughout the service sector."
Author Nelson Lichtenstein, also a participant at the IQ2 debate, linked Wal-Mart's wage and business policies to the populist wave that's reshaped the political landscape.
"I would say that part of the reason for the political turmoil we're in right now is that for many, many people in the white working class, the sense of predictability has fled from their lives, and Wal-Mart and other competitors who follow the 'Wal-Mart model' are responsible for that," Lichtenstein said.
In order to ramp up its online presence and hold the line on costs, Wal-Mart recently said it would slash hundreds of jobs. In total, Wal-Mart has eliminated about 18,000 jobs since early last year, a company spokesman confirmed to CNBC.