The Unseen Struggles of a Nigerian Student in the UK Gig Economy From 80-Hour Work Weeks to Fatherhood

In the aftermath of Brexit, the UK experienced a notable shift in migration patterns, attracting previously eschewed non-EU citizens, especially those from former colonies like Nigeria. But this opportunity is a double-edged sword, with immigrants having to resort to illegal employment—at great physical, psychological and legal risk—to cope with the high costs of living. 

When Onyedika (a pseudonym employed to protect the person’s privacy) left Ozalla, Enugu State in Nigeria and relocated to the UK in October 2019 on a student visa, he harboured the same ambitions as countless other migrants: access to world-class education, proximity to global professional opportunities, and the promise of economic security. Today, between his three jobs, he works over 80 hours weekly, leaving him with barely any time to pursue other goals. In addition to his punishing work schedule, Onyedika’s unstable financial circumstances have distanced him from his family back home, who financed his move with the expectation that he would become a primary provider upon settling in the UK. His predicament is a common reality among many Nigerian immigrants struggling to make ends meet in the UK’s harsh socioeconomic climate. 


The Japa syndrome has become emblematic of the disillusionment amongst Nigerian youth, where seven out of ten young people express a willingness to leave the country. Their decision to leave is driven by the failure of the Nigerian state to guarantee a viable future for its young people.  

It is now commonplace for Nigerians keen on establishing a life in the UK to seek entry to the country via a student visa. With an estimated average cost of £22,000 annually, the UK has Europe’s most expensive education system. Despite this fact, and the recent 35 per cent increase in the student visa fee, Nigerians are not discouraged. Nearly 60,000 Nigerians immigrated to the UK to study in 2023, marking a 73 per cent increase from the previous year and a staggering 769 per cent rise from 2019.

Onyedika arrived in the UK with only €920, barely enough to cover a month’s rent, to say nothing of school fees and other living expenses. Within a few days of his arrival, he started working multiple jobs, contravening the laws that restrict international students to no more than 20 hours of work per week. ‘How else could I have gathered the money for tuition and still managed to live?’ he exclaimed. He secured his first job in the UK through a recruitment agency. This agency gave him the impression that the best job he would be able to get as a fresh immigrant was as a care worker in homes for the elderly and disabled. Consequently, he commenced work, undertaking night shifts lasting 10 hours, earning £10.5 per hour. He admitted to me that it was hard at first, almost humiliating, especially as he had no experience looking after anyone else, let alone elderly people. Nonetheless, he convinced himself that this was a temporary position, taken solely out of necessity to cover his living expenses and university fees. However, upon receiving his first month’s salary of £1,000, he resolved to persevere. Four years on, he still works night shifts at the nursing home.

To supplement his income at the nursing home, he delivers food for local restaurants (earning from £7 to £10 which is less than the official minimum wage). Like countless foreigners who arrive in Europe needing quick, no-strings-attached jobs, Onyedika found an opportunity in food delivery apps. He was introduced to someone who set up a fake paper account (using counterfeit identifying documents) for him in exchange for £700. This exploitative system even allows accounts to be rented from those who are legally entitled to create one, in return for a commission from the earnings of those who are not.

Like other ‘freelance’ roles in the so-called gig economy, delivery jobs are appealing because they create the illusion of independence, especially for immigrants who are restricted in the kind of work they can do. From Onyedika’s testimony, I observed that delivery apps create a kind of ‘gambling effect’. Each new order triggers a release of dopamine in the brain and can perpetuate interest in the job despite its inherent instability. While delivery apps provide opportunities to earn money, they lack the social benefits typically associated with traditional employment. Riders often find themselves isolated during work hours, with only themselves or possibly distant loved ones for company. Additionally, the ‘boss’ in this scenario is an algorithm, whose workings are opaque and can penalize workers for deviating from assigned work hours or experiencing delays in fulfilling orders. As such, delivery jobs can exacerbate feelings of loneliness and isolation.

In 2022, Onyedika took on yet another job to add to his other streams of income. He works several hours a week at a warehouse, where he picks up and stocks orders of clothes, shoes, footballs and other goods.


When he was much younger, Onyedika’s dream was to become a professional footballer and make a living from his passion. He has struggled for the right to play throughout his life. As a teenager, he fought often with his older brother, who prohibited him from playing football until he finished high school. Now, at 25, he grapples with the fatigue of endless shifts at work. He lost his father when he was only 12 months old. His mother followed four years later. Before she passed, she made Onyedika promise (at barely five years of age) that he would become a priest. In his parents’ absence, he was raised by his three older sisters and two brothers, all of whom worked hard to ensure he fulfilled his mother’s dying wish by training to enter the priesthood. In Onyedika’s community, the priesthood carries significant importance, symbolizing honour, prestige and a degree of financial stability. Considering the deeply religious atmosphere of his hometown, it is natural for a parent to envision such a path for their youngest offspring. In fulfilling his mother’s wishes, Onyedika attended seminary school for four years, until he was unfortunately expelled for missing a crucial exam. His life has since taken a different path.

The money notwithstanding, Onyedika believes that his job with the care home is hurting his professional prospects in his field of study. ‘I have been rejected by all the IT companies I have applied to so far. Once they notice you have experience in health and social care, they would rather have you remain there.’ According to Onyedika, a common perception among migrants is that care roles are dead-end jobs. The UK is experiencing a shortage of care workers to look after its ageing population. The 2021 census showed that the number of over-65s in the UK had risen from 9.2 million to 11 million in the last decade.  

At the end of 2022, vacancies in the National Health Service in the UK had reached a record high of over 130,000. At the same time, data from job boards showed that ads in social care were not attracting as many clicks as other similarly paid jobs. Despite the UK government’s decision to expand work visas in the health sector as of February 2021, the problem of unfilled jobs in this field continues to be a pressing issue. A 2023 report from Oxford University’s Migration Observatory asserts that there is a risk of the UK becoming excessively dependent on foreign employees to fill social care positions. 


Despite the fact that curbing the influx of migrants was a primary goal for Brexit, net migration post Brexit has reached unprecedented levels. While violence and oppression in certain regions drive numerous refugees to seek asylum in the UK, another major factor contributing to immigration is the labour shortage resulting from Brexit, particularly evident in the health, social care, and agriculture industries, revealed by an unemployment rate of just 4 per cent. 

This trend is not completely new. In 2014, Romanians were granted the right to travel and work freely within the European Union [EU]. By 2015 they already represented the nationality with the highest share of people employed in domestic work in Italy: 20.5 per cent of more than 880,000 employees. Also, in 2021, between 300,000 and 600,000 thousand people from central and eastern Europe were working as carers for the elderly in Germany. It is important to remember that Europe is not a uniform area even among EU Member States. There has always been a hierarchy between European countries. 

Eastern European populations, a peripheral part of Europe until recently, have always provided an immigrant labour force for the richer countries of Western Europe. Although the new EU enlargements of 2004 and 2007 promised non-discriminatory European integration within the union, the reality has shown that Eastern European migrants have faced substantial discrimination, competition with existing ethnic groups in the receiving countries and significant negative market valuation, being exploited and marginalized as a new flexible labour force.

In the latest polls, the UK has been ranked as one of the most open countries to foreign labour, a radical shift from the 2009 attitude known for the famous political slogan, ‘British jobs for British workers.’ Or from 2012, when the UK foreign secretary’s statement to a national publication that his aim is to create a genuinely hostile environment for illegal immigrants here in Britain enshrined the term, hostile environment, which has subsequently remained emblematic in English discussions of immigration. 

Care homes often sponsor the much-touted work visas for migrants; in fact, the percentage of health sector staff working for an employer holding a sponsorship licence increased from 10 per cent to 39 per cent from February 2022 to March 2023. Moreover, in 2022, 99 per cent of employees who obtained a work visa in the sector were from non-EU countries, the main ones being India (33 per cent), Zimbabwe (16 per cent) and Nigeria (15 per cent). Onyedika outrightly rejects the prospect of such a visa. ‘I don’t want to get a full-time job and be at their mercy forever. I don’t like working there, it’s just a compromise.’ 

Sleeping during the night shift is strictly prohibited. At any given time, an alarm could go off, necessitating immediate attention to a resident’s requests for assistance. However, in cases where colleagues can be trusted, there may be mutual agreements to provide cover for each other and allow brief naps. On the flip side, without such support, individuals may find themselves photographed sleeping on duty and reported to the manager.

A social worker’s responsibilities encompass a wide range of tasks, including personal care tasks such as showering, shaving, oral hygiene, dressing, and administering medication. Additionally, they are responsible for health monitoring and reporting, meal assistance, providing emotional support and companionship, and reporting are also part of the job description. It is tiresome, thankless work. 


Less than two years after arriving in the UK, Onyedika met his girlfriend Sarah (pseudonym), and two years later they moved into Sarah’s parents’ house together. Onyedika did not know many white women before he started dating Sarah, but after the few romantic experiences he had in the UK, one thing was clear to him: ‘White women promise you all sorts of things before they are with you, including marrying you to help you with your visa. But they inevitably change their minds after a while.’ Sarah wanted a serious relationship, and more than that, she wanted a baby. Onyedika, like many Nigerian men, wants many children—at least four. A qualitative study published by Obafemi Awolowo University in 2019 took a survey of men belonging to the three main ethnic groups in Nigeria. It showed how certain factors (such as religion, socio-economic status, government policies and peer pressure) play a role in the number of children a man desires to have. Onyedika believes that his desire for a big family is a divine mandate. 

While waiting for feedback on the family visa he applied for (as the father of the child he had with Sarah), Onyedika had to temporarily withdraw from his studies in the last semester of his third and final year. He had neither the money nor the time to devote himself fully to university. Although he had managed to pay for the first semester (£6,000) before the baby was born, the college now required him to pay the full amount (£13,000) in order to resume the year. 

I took the liberty of asking him to what extent the opportunity to obtain a family visa influenced his decision to become a father. He gave me a slightly angry initial response: ‘I really wanted to have a child while I am still young. Sarah wanted it too.’ He continued, then, in a calmer tone: ‘You only have two years to stay in the UK after you finish your studies in order to pursue an internship.’ Don’t you think you could have got a job and a visa in two years?  ‘I’m afraid I’d never get another form of visa if someone checked how many hours I worked all these years when I was only allowed to work 20 a week.’ 

His circumstances notwithstanding, Onyedika remains a dedicated father. He spends most of his free time with his child, religiously contributes financially to the household and child-rearing expenses, and is available to the family whenever he is not making a delivery or on shift at the nursing home or warehouse. One aspect of his life often manages to overshadow his enthusiasm: his current relationship with his older brother, who has played the role of father in Onyedika’s life.  

His brother is 16 years older and was the adult authority and head of the family after the death of their parents. He was the one who enforced discipline and forbade football in favour of studies. It was also he who raised the money needed for Onyedika to go and get a degree at a European university, paying for his visa, plane ticket, the £10,000 one-year preparatory course (compulsory for all foreigners who want to go to university in the UK and who have spent less than 13 years in the UK education system) and Onyedika’s first month abroad. 

Onyedika’s brother sent him abroad to study, convinced that he would get a degree and a job that would enable him to send money home and help other family members migrate. ‘I sent you there to learn, not to have children,’ was the rebuke that put into precise words the disappointment of realizing that his youngest sibling was building a life of his own, away from the family’s interests. They have barely spoken to each other since the baby was born, and never honestly. Onyedika learned from his sisters that his elder brother does not hold back in his criticism and offensive words against him. He told me: 

He keeps giving me examples of other men who went to England, came back with enough money and bought land or built farms. I don’t know how they did it, but they certainly didn’t have to pay those amounts for college that I did. He asked me for £5,000 one day and got angry when I told him I didn’t have it. He didn’t believe me. He imagines that you just have to get here and earn £5,000 by clapping your hands. But I can’t help it, I’ve got another family now. I’ve got other priorities. 

I asked him why he didn’t choose to get a visa via the marriage route, like many other couples from all over the world. He said he was afraid. He knows Nigerian men who have done this and got into huge trouble when they wanted to divorce their British wives. Now they have to spend a fortune in court and there is no guarantee that they will be able to stay in the UK afterwards. 

As of our last conversation, Onyedika had just received a message from the UK government, informing him that his visa application could be delayed by up to nine months due to the high number of applications. Despite this setback, Onyedika remains undeterred. His energy is boundless, and even in the face of challenges, he never misses football practice. He plans to find a way to carve out time from his busy schedule to pursue some basic IT certifications, with the goal of securing employment in that field. While he has not abandoned his aspirations to complete college and support his family, current circumstances dictate that his education and the family’s aspirations for him to financially support his two brothers’ migration to the UK will have to be indefinitely postponed

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